The best route of Rashod Bateman’s season came in the AFC championship game. That it went unrewarded, perhaps even unnoticed, was a fitting bookend to the Ravens wide receiver’s strange third season in Baltimore: How could someone capable of turning Kansas City Chiefs star cornerback L’Jarius Sneed into a pretzel finish with just one catch for 2 yards, both season lows?

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That dissonance hung over Bateman’s 2023 like a curtain waiting to fall. Even as the former first-round pick developed into one of the NFL’s better route runners, he never emerged as a primary option for quarterback Lamar Jackson. Over 16 games, Bateman finished fourth on the team in targets (56), fifth in receptions (32) and sixth in receiving yards (367). His most notable highlights some weeks were not catches but, rather, those plays where he did everything but get the ball.

At the Ravens’ season-ending news conference earlier this month, coach John Harbaugh was asked about the apparent disconnect between Jackson, the 2023 NFL Most Valuable Player, and Bateman, with whom he’d shown a budding chemistry only one season earlier. Harbaugh rejected the premise of the question outright.

“I don’t have anything to say about that way you asked the question, because I don’t see it that way,” he said. “Those guys are doing their jobs, and we’re trying to build the pass game around everybody we can. Rashod Bateman has a great future. Yeah, he runs great routes. He’s developed into a great, great route runner, and I know Lamar wants to get him the ball as much as he can. So the idea that he didn’t maybe — you’re saying he didn’t get as many passes as you would have liked him to get or whatever — hey, I agree. I want Bate to flourish and make a bunch of plays, and he’s going to do that, and I think he’ll be a bigger part of it next year.”

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As the Ravens rebuild their wide receiver room this offseason, they’ll need to make sense of Bateman’s 2023. Did he show enough, after two injury-riddled seasons, to convince the Ravens to exercise his fifth-year option for 2025? (Probably not.) Will his connection with Jackson improve with more practice time and a potentially healthy offseason? (Seems likely.) How much of a focus should he be in the Ravens’ 2024 offense? (To be determined.)

For answers, The Baltimore Banner reviewed all 366 of Bateman’s routes with Jackson in the regular season and playoffs from this past season. Here are five takeaways.

1. Their downfield connection was one of the NFL’s weakest

Jackson targeted Bateman 14 times on passes of at least 20 air yards. Only two ended with a catch, a 14.2% completion rate that would’ve ranked fourth-worst leaguewide among all qualifying receivers, according to TruMedia.

Bateman was not without blame. In a Week 5 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, for instance, he was in good position for a contested-catch opportunity down the left sideline, but could not bring in Jackson’s deep ball. In a Week 14 win over the Rams, he appeared to give up on his vertical route despite having a step on Los Angeles’ two deep-lying defensive backs.

The more persistent issue, though, was Jackson’s inaccuracy. According to Pro Football Focus, his downfield throws to Bateman were considered “off target” 57.1% of the time; only five qualifying receivers had a worse rate. (Fellow Ravens wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was one of them; deep passes that Beckham tried to catch from Jackson were off-line 60% of the time, tied for second-worst among all receivers, behind only the Atlanta Falcons’ Van Jefferson.)

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Ultimately, home run shots from Jackson to Bateman did more harm than good. Jackson finished with as many interceptions as completions (two) when targeting Bateman deep. Even aborted downfield looks proved costly; Jackson was strip-sacked as he wound up for a field-flipping pass to Bateman in the AFC championship game loss to the Chiefs.

2. Bateman was open a lot

It’s impossible to objectively quantify just how often Bateman got open, and how open he was. But his ability to shake coverage was, if nothing else, reliable.

According to ESPN, among the 109 NFL wide receivers with at least 30 targets in 2023, Bateman ranked 31st in “Open Score,” which assesses the likelihood that a receiver would’ve been able to complete a catch if targeted on a route. Zay Flowers ranked 13th, and Beckham 29th.

According to PFF, Bateman had one of the NFL’s best “separation” grades among wideouts, ahead of Beckham, Flowers and even the Miami Dolphins’ Tyreek Hill.

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And according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Bateman’s average separation from the nearest defender when targeted was 2.5 yards — below the league average for wide receivers (2.9 yards).

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There’s value in all three evaluations. Bateman got open regularly, but lacked the elite speed to overwhelm cornerbacks and safeties on vertical routes. The plays on which he earned the greatest separation also happened to be plays that typically ended with scrambles, sacks or short throws. And a significant share of Bateman’s routes that did earn targets came on quick hitters or in congested areas over the middle of the field.

3. Bateman was rarely Jackson’s first option

So why did Bateman average a career-low 3.6 targets per game in his 17 appearances with Jackson? Why did he finish nine of his games in the 20- to 40-yard range? Why did his single-game high for receiving yards (54) trail the season-best mark for seven other Ravens players?

The best answer is perhaps also the simplest: Bateman wasn’t considered a go-to weapon in the passing game. According to Fantasy Points, in his games with Jackson, Bateman was the Ravens’ first read or designed target on just 13.4% of their pass attempts. Last season, in the five games he played in relatively good health with Jackson, Bateman was the first read on 26.4% of the Ravens’ throws.

“There’s only one football that goes around to everybody,” Ravens wide receivers coach Greg Lewis said in November. “We have an enormous amount of playmakers with ability on offense, and we try to get everybody involved. When your number is called, the expectation is for you to make those plays. When Bate’s number has been called, he’s made those plays. …

“We talked about that from Day One. There’s one football, and that’s the way it goes. We’re in it to win games, and when your number is called, your opportunity presents itself, we need you to make that play. Then there could be another one two plays later, or it could be another one 20 plays later. That’s just the way it goes as far as us being as potent as we are on offense with all the skill players that we have and the guy [Jackson] delivering the ball to us. It’s just ‘pick your poison,’ and we need to take advantage of that.”

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4. Bateman’s hands produced highlights and lowlights

At Minnesota, Bateman had a knack for one-handed grabs — and a reputation for inconsistent hands. According to PFF, he had 19 drops on 166 catchable targets over his three-year Golden Gophers career, a worrisome 11.4% drop rate.

In Baltimore, Bateman hit those same extremes. In the Week 5 loss to Pittsburgh, he dropped a gimme pass in the end zone. A month later, in a blowout win over the Seattle Seahawks, he had two of the Ravens’ best catches all season.

Overall, Bateman finished the 2023 season with four drops; his 10% drop rate ranked in the lower third among qualifying receivers, according to PFF. But for stretches, he was among the Ravens’ most sure-handed receivers. From Week 6 to Week 14, he was targeted 28 times and didn’t record a single dropped pass.

“You can see his confidence beginning to grow, and he’s playing faster,” offensive coordinator Todd Monken said in December, noting that Bateman had been unable to practice during the offseason and for much of training camp as he recovered from the Lisfranc (foot) surgery he underwent in 2022. “You can see that, and he has it in him. It’s been better every week, and he’s been able to practice every week. That’s a big part of a player’s development when you have a skill set that he has. He loves football. He likes to practice, so it’s just a matter of staying healthy, and that development will continue to come.”

5. Bateman was asked to do a lot

Even with his limited production, Bateman was never pigeonholed into a role on the Ravens’ offense. While he primarily lined up as an outsider receiver, aligning in the slot for just 8.2% of his routes, according to TruMedia, Bateman ran the full route tree from out wide.

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Versatility might be his best asset, and the biggest reason for optimism headed into 2024. If the Ravens draft a more prototypical “X” receiver in April — Florida State’s Keon Coleman and Texas’ Adonai Mitchell, two imposing 6-foot-4 targets, have been linked to them in the first round — Bateman could move around the offense, filling in as the primary receiver on the strong side of formations or as a slot option.

With a healthy offseason, his on-field bond with Jackson should only strengthen. Bateman’s already one of Jackson’s biggest cheerleaders on social media, saluting Jackson after he won his second MVP award and honoring his five-touchdown masterclass against the Dolphins in Week 17 with a meme inspired by The Jackson 5.

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Jackson, too, has stumped for Bateman, saying in early November that he “just needs more opportunities.” Four days later, in the win over Seattle, Bateman had five targets and three catches, both season highs at that point.

”Bate, if he stays healthy, he has a chance to be one of the best X receivers in this league,” Flowers said after the season ended. “His speed, his route running, he can do everything every receiver can do. As long as he stays healthy, he’ll be good.”

“He was healthy all year this year, had a chance to establish himself that way, and he’ll be starting,” Harbaugh said at his season-ending news conference. “He’ll be playing all those snaps, and he’ll rise to the occasion.”

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

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