LANDOVER — Zay Flowers and Travis Vokolek could not be more different as football players.
Flowers, a 5-foot-9, 182-pound shifty wide receiver from South Florida — an area known for its route runners — is the most hyped rookie at Ravens training camp, thanks to viral videos and reports of his play. Vokolek, meanwhile, is a 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end from Springfield, Missouri — a place not known to be a football factory — who signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent out of Nebraska.
Ahead of the NFL draft, NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein described Vokolek as “a below-average receiving threat” who would need to “improve his technique and his performance as a run blocker to win a spot as an in-line option off the bench or on a practice squad.” Zierlein described Flowers as having “the skill set to become a valuable playmaker as a pro.”
On Monday night, the Ravens lost their first preseason game in eight years — a streak that included 24 wins — and the two rookies on opposite ends of the spectrum were arguably their best players.
It began with Flowers, whose status was uncertain ahead of the game. Flowers will almost certainly be a starter on the team this year, and the Ravens rest most of those players. But Flowers was out on the field on the opening drive. Six plays later, he was running down the field, breaking a flimsy arm tackle from defensive back Jartavius Martin to score his first NFL Touchdown.
The play was another glimpse at how Flowers is expected to upgrade this Ravens’ offense. According to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he gained 21.8 yards after that catch. During the regular season last year, the Ravens had just four plays 21 yards or more after the catch.
“Zay is different, man,” quarterback Josh Johnson said, later adding: “He’s going to be a very exciting player, and his moves are wild. It’s like that every day, so he automatically injects life into the whole team just to see him go out there and unleash his special talent. I’m excited for the young fella.”
The day was done there for Flowers. Like last week, he played only one drive, this time ending with two catches for 37 yards and one touchdown. Flowers finished the game with six snaps, the second least on the team. Arguably the Ravens most precious cargo on Monday night, Flowers had done enough.
As Flowers exited the field, Vokolek said he told him, “I want to be like you.” And then Vokolek did his best impression.
Unlike Flowers, Vokolek is not considered luxury cargo for the Ravens. He is part of one of the most talented position groups on the team, where Mark Andrews, one of the best tight ends in the NFL, leads the group. Then there’s Isaiah Likely, who flashed last season as a reliable pass catcher. So while these games are a tune-up for Flowers and a chance for the Ravens to let teams briefly see their shiny new toy, for Vokolek, it’s an opportunity to prove to the Ravens and the rest of the league — Monday’s game was televised nationally on ESPN — that he belongs.
He did that by corralling a game-high two touchdowns. On the second score, Vokolek got behind three commanders’ defenders in the end zone, leaped and snagged the ball, and began celebrating.
Vokolek counted to two with his fingers to let everyone know the kind of night he’d been having. It was a foreign position for Vokolek. He said he “never” had scored two touchdowns in a game before, and he had four touchdowns over five years of college at Rutgers and Nebraska.
“I don’t know where it came from,” said Vokolek who finished with 28 yards. “I’m not a big celebration guy. It just kind of came to my head, I’ve seen other guys do it, and I just pulled it out.”
This game was another highlight for Flowers to add to an offseason laden with them as his hype train barrels into the regular season. For Vokolek, who is a long shot to make this team, it was a chance to work on celebrations and prove to himself that he is where he should be.
“I think so,” Vokolek said when asked if he’d proved something on Monday. “I never really had any doubt in myself or anything. I wouldn’t say I’m a cocky guy, but I’m confident in myself and my ability.”