Zay Flowers can’t remember the last time he played on a Thursday night. Maybe high school? But that was five years ago, when he was a three-star college recruit and not a first-round NFL pick.
The Ravens’ Thursday night game against the Cincinnati Bengals marks a brand new experience for the rookie in a season full of fresh and exciting moments.
It also brings a new challenge for Flowers, who is still trying to find his routine — something mentor Odell Beckham Jr. has told him is critical. The Ravens have just 99 hours and 50 minutes between their disappointing 33-31 loss to the Browns and their next AFC North match up.
Luckily for Flowers, he’s coming off a good individual performance despite the bad team performance. He bounced back from a one-catch game against Seattle for a five-catch, 73-yard game against the Browns. That fifth catch gave him 50 on the year, tying him for the team rookie record with Torrey Smith.
Beckham had predicted Sunday would be a breakout game for Flowers, and he was the best receiver on the Ravens, but Beckham wants more from him.
“We’re waiting to see that 160 yards, two, three touchdowns breakout game, everything that we know he’s capable of doing,” Beckham said. “I think he’s gonna be a tremendous talent in this league.”
The Banner talked to Beckham, one of the most famous receivers in the league; Rashod Bateman, a fellow Ravens first-round pick; and Qadry Ismail, a former Ravens receiver turned analyst, to break down Flowers’ season and where he goes from here.
Flowers had the trust of his quarterback before he ever played an NFL game.
Lamar Jackson looked to the soon-to-be 23-year-old 10 times in his rookie debut, despite the multitude of weapons in the offense. Flowers rewarded Jackson’s faith by catching nine of the targets for 78 yards, his best performance to date.
Over the next six games, Flowers contributed at least 50 offensive yards in every game, becoming the second rookie behind Jamarr Chase to do so in his first seven games since 1970.
Ismail said he was pleasantly surprised by Flowers’ open-field explosiveness, as well as his toughness. He agrees with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s assessment that Flowers is “not afraid to go into dark spaces when he has the ball in his hands.”
But Ismail wasn’t shocked by Flowers’ strong start after the offseason Flowers had. Flowers spent his summer training in South Florida with Jackson and Beckham, and that gave him confidence that carried over into camp and games.
Despite their inexperience, rookies also have a certain advantage over opponents — there’s no NFL film on them. Both Flowers and Monken did a great job taking advantage of that and “utilizing his fresh legs, enthusiasm and skill set,” Ismail said.
His opportunities increased with every solid performance — but also with every veteran who fell. Beckham injured his ankle in Week 2 and was out until Week 5. Bateman hurt his hamstring in Week 3 and was also out until Week 5. With two starters out, Flowers was forced into a bigger role.
“It’s hard to say anything surprised me because, like you said, I’ve already seen it,” Beckham said. “But anytime you come out and you’re in the National Football League and you’re doing these things, people tend to forget that like, yeah, he is a rookie.”
After making four catches for 75 yards against the Detroit Lions, Flowers’ stats suddenly dropped to a mere 19 yards on five catches. The next game, he received only one target, which he caught for 11 yards.
Where did he go? Was his start fool’s gold? Following general manager Eric DeCosta’s remarks at the NFL Combine about the trouble the Ravens have had developing wide receivers, all eyes have been on this small receiver the Ravens took a big swing on with their first pick.
But anyone who’s panicking needs some patience, Ismail said. Many rookies see a dip once opponents start to specifically game plan against them. And this offensive scheme, in particular, sets players up to have both boom and bust games.
Monken’s offense has found success by often targeting the player that is least expected, Ismail pointed out.
Flowers popped off, so now you’re ready for him? Here’s Keaton Mitchell instead. Then here’s Mark Andrews, Beckham, Pat Ricard.
It takes buy-in and selflessness from everyone — something the veterans remind both Flowers and themselves.
“Right now, we’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of mouths to feed,” said Bateman, who has had an up-and-down season of his own. “You just never know when it’s gonna happen. It can happen in any game. We’ve seen clips of it, and hopefully one day it can happen for him.”
Even with the rotation, there are certain players twho will always get their touches, like Andrews, a dependable veteran. Flowers hasn’t earned that right yet, Ismail said. He had very steady hands to start and caught three balls for over 40 yards. But when the Ravens looked to him to be the guy against Pittsburgh, he (along with all the other receivers) dropped the ball.
“Zay, he’s, in a sense, caught up in being that piece to the puzzle, he’s not the main cog, if you will,” Ismail said.
The stats don’t tell the whole story, either. Despite some uninspiring games, Flowers has proved he’s a threat. Defenses know they need to pay extra attention: He ranks in the Top 25 at getting open, according to ESPN Analytics.
Flowers certainly feels all the eyes on him, but his confidence hasn’t changed as his statistics dipped, he said. That’s apparent to his teammates as well. Bateman said Flowers seems unfazed, and Beckham said Flowers continues to approach practice with joy and energy.
But Flowers feels he hasn’t yet shown what he’s capable of. So for all those who are watching, waiting to see if this is the draft pick that will finally pan out, he has a promise: “The best is yet to come.”
Adapting on the fly
There have been flashes of it, but what does Flowers at his best look like?
“The name of my game is separation, getting open and catching the ball and running,” Flowers said.
That hasn’t really been on display, since Jackson has mostly hit Flowers on short and mid-length routes. Three people have the keys to unlock that, Ismail said.
First and foremost, Flowers has to keep putting in the work.
“It’s a scenario of, ‘Okay, here are my strengths, my skill sets,” Ismail said. “How can I grow? And how can I get better? And how can I not be predictable?”
But it’s also on Monken, Ismail said. The offensive coordinator needs to put Flowers in positions where he can show off his speed, and he needs to do it in fresh and innovative ways the defense won’t predict.
Jackson also plays a part. He’s ultimately the one making the decision and the throw — or not quite making it, as was the case on what would have been a touchdown against the Browns (pictured above).
Flowers, for his part, has delivered on his promise as an impact player with the ball in his hands. He is tied for 14th among NFL receivers in his yards-after-the-catch grade, according to ESPN Analytics.
At his best, Ismail sees Flowers being a more explosive Tyler Lockett or a dependable threat like Amon-Ra St. Brown. Beckham said he sees Flowers being “Antwaan Randall-El-ish” in what he can do after he gets the ball — and maybe even better.
“(Flowers) has got his own — I mean, we haven’t seen anything like that,” Beckham said. “He’s in and out of his breaks, his speed, everything, he’s just a tremendous athlete.”
“He does create separation like nobody I’ve seen before,” Bateman said.
In the meantime, Ismail would love to see Flowers develop his game within the game, trying out different route combos, “whether it be a comeback route, whether it be deep end or deep curl.” Flowers also has a to-do list for himself.
“I’ll say [I need to work on] details on everything I got to do, learning more of the defenses and how I got to run around versus leverages and stuff like that,” Flowers said. He’s developed a lot in reading coverages, he said, thanks to the time his coaches have taken with him. Coverages morph and are disguised more in the NFL compared to college, but things are starting to slow down for Flowers
Flowers’ story is far from written, Ismail said. Right now, the name of the game is patience — not just for Flowers, but for his fans and teammates who are anxious to see him succeed.
“His time is coming,” Beckham said. “He comes in a different shape and size than a lot of other receivers, but he knows how to make that work. And again, it’s early on in his rookie year. I didn’t start going crazy crazy until about around this time in my rookie year. You really find your groove. And I think that he’s gonna start putting together some really big games, and that’s exciting.”