Zay Flowers has been the receiver the Ravens long craved: ‘This kid just has it’

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In his first career NFL regular-season game and on his second ever reception, Zay Flowers caught the ball from Lamar Jackson in the left flat, several yards short of the first-down marker. He accelerated upfield and unleashed a spin move that left Houston Texans linebacker Denzel Perryman grasping for air. He then hit Jonathan Greenard with a stop-and-go before lowering his shoulder to pick up a few more yards.

A ball that was caught well behind the line of scrimmage turned into an 8-yard gain and foreshadowed what was to come from Flowers’ rookie season.

“The most fun that I’ve ever had,” Flowers says about the past six months, flashing his trademark smile.

Being a wide receiver on the Baltimore Ravens has never been easy. They have often featured a run-oriented offense with standout tight ends. Being a first-round receiver, who has to shoulder the baggage of past disappointments and enormous expectations, makes it even more challenging.

Yet, when Flowers wasn’t breaking opponent’s ankles this season, he was breaking franchise rookie receiving records. When he wasn’t breaking free from defenders, he was breaking a narrative that has dogged the Ravens’ decision-makers for years.

You’ve all heard it: The Ravens, one of the NFL’s gold standards when it comes to identifying and cultivating talent, can’t draft and develop wide receivers. In Flowers’ rookie season, Baltimore finally has a counterargument.

Flowers set rookie franchise records in catches (77) and receiving yards (858) to go along with five touchdowns. He had four catches for 41 yards in the team’s divisional-round victory over the Texans, which earned them a berth in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

“He has things that you just can’t teach,” said former Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith. “The way he’s grounded and how humble he is and how he works hard, he just does everything the right way. Super mature. Knows what he wants. He’s competitive. He has fun. I’m not surprised at all by his success. This kid just has it.”

Smith, who is retired but lives in the Baltimore area and has a presence around the team, is the best receiver the Ravens have drafted and developed. In four seasons in Baltimore, he had 3,591 receiving yards and 30 touchdowns and was a key piece on the 2012 team that won the franchise’s last Super Bowl.

Yet, Smith was also a second-round pick. The Ravens’ otherwise poor history in drafting wide receivers isn’t confined to the first round, but that’s where it starts. When they selected Flowers at No. 22 in the 2023 NFL Draft, it marked the third time in five years and the sixth time overall that they took a first-round receiver. None of the first four got second contracts from the Ravens, and the jury is still out on 2021 first-round pick Rashod Bateman’s future with the team. Bateman has flashed No. 1 wide receiver ability, but he’s been slowed by injuries and Baltimore has not featured him regularly in the offense.

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Travis Taylor never played close to the expectations that came with being the 10th overall pick in 2000. Mark Clayton, who went No. 22 in 2005, had a strong second season, but his production and opportunities dropped over the next three. Selected at No. 26 in 2015, Breshad Perriman is one of the biggest draft misses in team history. He was sidelined his entire rookie year with a knee injury and was cut before his fourth season in Baltimore. Marquise Brown, picked at No. 25 in 2019, put together three solid years but grew disenchanted with the offense and was traded before the final guaranteed year on his contract.

Flowers, meanwhile, has been a go-to player all season. His 108 targets are 44 more than any other Raven. He has 32 more catches and 293 more receiving yards than any other Raven. He’s even sixth on the team with 56 rushing yards.

“I think our situations are very different,” Bateman said. “Zay came into a very different offense where there were a lot of opportunities for him. I’m honestly not sure if he’s felt that pressure since he’s been here. He’s had a lot of success. My experience, I feel like, has been up and down. But as a rookie, being in the NFL, it can be tough. He’s definitely handled everything well. This dude has been putting on a show.”


The reason general manager Eric DeCosta traveled to South Florida a few weeks after Super Bowl LVII was to meet with Jackson about his unresolved contract. At that point of the negotiations, the Ravens and their franchise quarterback weren’t seeing eye to eye on how much the extension should be. DeCosta and Jackson were on the same page, though, when it came to what the Ravens needed to add to their offense.

Jackson broached the subject of Baltimore acquiring veteran wide receivers such as Odell Beckham Jr. and DeAndre Hopkins. He also wanted to tell DeCosta about a fellow South Floridian who had just finished up a prolific career at Boston College.

“I heard about Zay Flowers in youth football growing up. They were always talking about, ‘The little kid,’” Jackson recalled. “In high school, college, he was still that same guy. Even though (Boston College) wasn’t all that, Zay made the most of his opportunities, and he just showed it. He was the same guy from youth football all the way up until now. I put a bug in Eric’s ear. I was like, ‘Man, we need to go get him,’ and he just did the rest.”

Flowers had been on the Ravens’ radar long before Jackson made the sales pitch. Director of college scouting David Blackburn, one of the team’s most trusted evaluators, saw Flowers in person at the East-West Shrine Bowl practices. When Blackburn returned, one of the first questions DeCosta asked him was how Flowers looked.

“Fast as (heck),” Blackburn told him. “Nobody could cover him.”

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Zay Flowers had 78 receptions for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns in his senior season at Boston College. (Maddie Malhotra / Getty Images)

In a meeting at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, Flowers wowed Ravens officials with his energy and passion for football. There were four receivers expected to go in the first round — Flowers, Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, USC’s Jordan Addison and TCU’s Quentin Johnston — and Baltimore was high on them all. DeCosta wanted to come out of the first round with a receiver to join newcomers Beckham and Nelson Agholor and continue the team’s offseason makeover at the position. More than anything, he wanted Flowers.

“We’re getting to that week of the draft and I had been infatuated with Zay,” DeCosta said. “For us, it was always Zay.”

Smith-Njigba came off the board first at No. 20 to the Seattle Seahawks. Johnston went a pick later at No. 21 to the Los Angeles Chargers. Flowers was there for the taking at No. 22.

The pick triggered some questions because, at 5-foot-9 and 182 pounds, Flowers was virtually the same size as Brown, the team’s previous first-round receiver. It was fair to question whether Baltimore would have benefitted more from getting Jackson a bigger, more physical target.

The Ravens, though, were undeterred.

“Just look at the tape,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “We always believe that tape is the king. If you want to evaluate a football player, start by watching him play football. He made catches, he made people miss. Then you want to say, ‘How do you think this is going to translate to the NFL?’ That’s a little more of an educated guess that you have to make. We just felt like he had all the other intangibles, in terms of mindset and attitude, smart and competitive. A hard worker, loves football. All those kinds of things made you feel like that amazing skill set was going to transfer.”


Ravens fans have starved for a No. 1 receiver in his prime. It’s their white whale. For all their drafting acumen, the Ravens have never selected a homegrown receiver that made the Pro Bowl at that position. Wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, a fifth-round pick in 1996, made two Pro Bowl teams as a return man.

Clayton acknowledged he felt the pressure to be that guy. He also felt the frustration of constant quarterback upheaval and a secondary role in the passing game.

“As a young receiver that was drafted in the first round, you want to put up big numbers. You want to kill it. All of the guys who came in wanted to do it,” said Clayton, who had 234 catches for 3,116 yards and 12 touchdowns over five seasons in Baltimore. “But that’s not necessarily the way of football. That’s not necessarily how the Ravens are set up. The run game is always going to be very strong. You see the Justin Jeffersons, the Ja’Marr Chases, the Cooper Kupps, but there’s not that much opportunity traditionally in a Ravens-style offense to put up numbers like those.

“You want to be a great teammate and you are on a great team that wins. It’s one of the best organizations in the NFL, period. But, of course, you’d like to have a 1,200-to-1,400-yard season with 80-90 catches. The expectations for being a receiver just have to be different when you’re in Baltimore.”

Smith didn’t have the first-round label to live up to, but he faced additional scrutiny since he played his college ball in state at the University of Maryland. For him, the pressure he felt was self-induced and heightened by entering the NFL after a lockout. Smith reported to training camp and in a few weeks had to be ready to play the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bateman said he was impacted by the expectations. The situation was exacerbated by needing abdominal surgery in training camp and missing the start of his rookie year.

Flowers has benefitted from having Beckham, Agholor and Bateman, all former first-round picks, around him as he’s made the transition to the NFL. He’s also leaned on past experiences that have strengthened his resolve and provided proper perspective.

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Flowers’ mother, Jackie Walden, died when he was 5 years old, leaving his father, Willie, to raise 14 children. Flowers was the fourth youngest, which is why he wears the No. 4. His brother, Martin, was murdered when Flowers was in high school.

“I feel like if you go through things like that, losing people and tough times, a crowd can’t get to you. Nobody else’s pressure can get to you,” Flowers said. “There’s nothing that can get worse than that, so I go out there and smile and play and do what I got to do. I don’t really feel the pressure. I don’t really feel nervous. I don’t feel any of that.”

Flowers said he welcomed getting drafted by Baltimore because he knew the Ravens believed in him. The team made that clear early. Throughout training camp, offensive coordinator Todd Monken giddily talked about the fun new toy the draft brought the Ravens. In the first game against the Texans, Flowers was targeted 10 times and also had two rushing attempts. That was just the beginning.

There was his first touchdown catch in London and his first touchdown run in Los Angeles. There was the long touchdown catch against Miami and the diving reception in Cincinnati.

“The way he gets out of his breaks, you can’t teach it,” said Smith, who helps host a weekly fan show with Flowers and has gotten to know him well. “He’s low to the ground. He’s explosive. He’s fast. The first person is not going to touch him. He just does a great job smoothing in and out of his breaks. The thing that I love the most, you always can count on the big ol’ smile. After something happens, he’s just always having fun. His energy is contagious.”

(Top photo: Michael Owens / Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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