Lamar Jackson was shocked, to say the least.
It had been over a month since the 2022 NFL draft, during which the 2019 NFL Most Valuable Player watched the Ravens trade top wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown to Arizona and show up just minutes later at the Cardinals’ draft party. The two had entered the NFL just a year apart and become close friends, only for Brown to become frustrated with his role his in the offense and quietly ask for a trade.
Jackson at least had some sort of warning the trade was coming, even if he didn’t quite believe it.
Rashod Bateman didn’t.
The second-year receiver had worked out with Brown over the summer and didn’t know he wanted to leave. He’d only find out later. For Jackson, Brown’s departure meant the loss of a trusted target. For Bateman, it meant opportunity.
Now he’s the Ravens’ undisputed top receiver.
“That’s the role that I’ve always wanted to be in,” Bateman said. “I’m excited to take that role.”
It’s happened rather quickly. The 2021 first-round draft pick played 12 games and started just four as a rookie, finishing with 515 yards on 46 receptions and one touchdown. A groin injury that required surgery kept Bateman out until Week 6, and then Jackson missed the final four games with an ankle injury. They only played seven games together.
Yet this summer, Bateman is transitioning from unproven rookie to reliable receiver. That can be hard in a Ravens offense that leans so much on the run. The receiving corps has long been a weak spot on the roster, with failed first-round picks or aging stars at the end of their careers providing little production. But in trading Brown, wide receivers coach Tee Martin thinks the team made a statement. Now, it’s Bateman’s turn.
“The guys do have a chip on their shoulder,” said Martin, who oversees a group that also includes young wideouts Devin Duvernay, James Proche II and Tylan Wallace. “When we don’t draft a wide receiver, what the organization is saying to you is, ‘We brought you here for a reason, and it’s your time.’”
Bateman looks the part of a No. 1 wideout, with his 6-foot-1, 193-pound frame in a flashy gold-tinted visor and white leggings standing out from the group. But taking that enhanced role comes with added scrutiny. Bateman had a few drops in minicamp and Martin still sees areas in which the former Minnesota star needs to improve.
Of course, he also had flashes of brilliance once Jackson returned to practice. On Wednesday, Bateman caught a 65-yard touchdown pass and showed off his speed his, perhaps an underappreciated part of his game.
“He’s getting open at the line super, super quick,” tight end Mark Andrews said of Bateman. “And then he’s got a burst of speed people don’t really talk about. Second year, he’s a guy that’s just gonna get better and better and better. The sky’s the limit for them.”
When asked if that’s going to be a bigger part of his game this season, Bateman’s response seemed joking, but confident.
“We’ll see,” he said with a smirk.
Bateman is the face of this young group of receivers, but Martin said leadership doesn’t have an age. Bateman takes a quiet approach, and it showed during his news conference Thursday.
“I don’t really talk much,” Bateman said. “Hopefully I can show that by the way I work, by being the first one here every day.”
He and Proche stood at the microphone together — in large part to speed up the news conference for Proche to make his flight — and it was largely Proche at the front. He’s the vocal one. Bateman stood a bit farther away from the mic and talked about what he and Martin believe he can do on the field.
He talked about trying to block out what people are saying about him, but he wonders about all the attention. Why him?
It’s because he’s unproven. He didn’t have the same immediate impact as the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase or the Miami Dolphins’ Jaylen Waddle, who were picked higher in the draft. They were thrust into leadership roles right away. Bateman wasn’t.
He and Proche will work out with Jackson in Florida before training camp to continue building their chemistry, having already spent time training together in California earlier this offseason. Bateman and Jackson believe that will help strengthen their connection ahead of a crucial season for each of them, as Jackson eyes a new contract and Bateman works toward solidifying his role his.
“I told them I wanted to get some chemistry. They ‘re like, ‘Man, we ‘re gonna get that regardless,’” Jackson said of talking to his receivers his when he missed voluntary organized team activities. “When the offseason first came, my ankle got better, we just had chemistry all back. It was like I never stopped playing. I just felt like when I got to camp, it was going to be the same way, and it has.”