The Ravens are expected to have about 170 players on their big board when the NFL draft kicks off April 27. Only a small share are first-round prospects. An even smaller share will be available at No. 22 overall. What will the Ravens do when they’re finally on the clock?
Over the next week, The Baltimore Banner will make the case for how general manager Eric DeCosta should handle the Ravens’ first-round pick, from building up their offense to bolstering their defense to moving around the draft board.
Today, we make the case for TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston.
The Ravens have already upgraded their wide receiver corps this offseason, signing Nelson Agholor (362 yards in 2022) in March to a one-year, $3.3 million contract and adding Odell Beckham Jr. (537 yards in 2021) earlier this month on a one-year, $15 million contract. Rashod Bateman and Devin Duvernay, who opened last season as the team’s top two wide receivers, should be back to full strength after suffering season-ending foot injuries. Another year of development from the team’s young reserves, Tylan Wallace and James Proche II, will only help the Ravens’ depth.
That should be enough to lift a group that finished last in the NFL in receiving yards last season. But it might not be enough to give the Ravens the well-rounded group they need.
On paper, Johnston (60 catches for 1,099 yards and six touchdowns in 2022) fills a glaring hole. At 6 feet 3 inches and 208 pounds, with explosive athleticism, he projects as a prototypical “X” receiver, who typically lines up opposite the tight end, positioned farthest away from the football, and can handle press coverage and threaten vertically.
Bateman has proved capable of winning in space. He averaged a solid 1.9 yards per route run as a rookie when lined up as an isolated wide receiver, according to Sports Info Solutions, and a strong 2.9 yards per route run in his second season in Baltimore. (In Cincinnati, by comparison, Tee Higgins averaged 2.6 yards and 3.5 yards per route run when isolated over his first two years, respectively, while fellow Bengals star Ja’Marr Chase averaged 2.8 yards and 2.6 yards over his first two.)
But Bateman’s injury history and schematic versatility leave an opening for someone like Johnston. The Ravens’ only other reliable option out wide has been tight end Mark Andrews, who typically lines up in the slot.
The draft range
Five wide receivers are considered likely first-round picks. According to ESPN’s projections, there’s about a 70% chance that Johnston will be available at No. 22 overall.
Only Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba (under 10%) and Boston College’s Zay Flowers (45%) are less likely to be on the board. USC’s Jordan Addison (75%) and Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt (100%) are more likely to be available.
The Ravens could find themselves in the middle of a run on wide receivers, as the Seattle Seahawks (No. 20 overall pick), Los Angeles Chargers (No. 21) and Minnesota Vikings (No. 23) all need wideouts.
The schematic fit
Ravens offensive coordinator Todd Monken didn’t have a dominant wide receiver at Georgia, at least not a healthy one. With the coronavirus pandemic and a torn ACL limiting George Pickens to a combined 12 games in 2020 and 2021, Monken leaned more on his tight ends and running backs over his three years in Athens.
But his play-calling left clues for how he might use the Ravens’ wide receivers: Feed them a steady diet of screens and play-action passes. Johnston excelled at both last season.
Johnston caught 15 of his 16 screen pass targets for 129 yards and a touchdown, according to SIS. He averaged a robust 0.26 expected points added per target, a measure of efficiency that accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position. That was far more effective than both Addison (23 catches on 26 targets for 144 yards and three touchdowns, 0.01 EPA per target) and Flowers (14 catches on 18 targets for 67 yards and two touchdowns, minus-0.18 EPA per target).
Johnston was also dangerous off run fakes. He had 24 catches on 37 play-action targets for 496 yards and three touchdowns last season, according to TruMedia. Of the 81 Football Bowl Subdivision receivers targeted on at least 30 such passes in 2022, Johnston ranked second overall in yards per route run (4.7), behind only UAB’s Trea Shropshire. (Flowers wasn’t far behind, at 4.3 yards, while Addison finished with an above-average 3.3 yards.)
An October win against Kansas State showed his play-action potential. In the third quarter, Johnston won easily against press coverage from cornerback Julius Brents, a possible first-round pick in next week’s draft. With Johnston separating down the left sideline and quarterback Max Duggan’s run fake freezing the single-high safety, Johnston was almost 5 yards clear of the nearest defender when he caught the eventual 55-yard touchdown.
At Georgia, Monken didn’t have a rocket-armed quarterback or a field-stretching wide receiver. The Bulldogs averaged 8.8 air yards per attempt, 61st among 131 FBS teams, according to TruMedia. So Monken got creative with his play designs and formations, relying on screens, bootlegs and run-pass-option plays to put his playmakers in space for quarterback Stetson Bennett. Georgia finished 18th in the FBS last season in yards after the catch per reception (6.9).
If Monken has quarterback Lamar Jackson running the Ravens’ offense this season, Johnston could be as much a threat on vertical routes as he is on quick hitters. At TCU, he tended to make the most of his improvisational opportunities. Over the past three seasons, among FBS wide receivers with at least 60 total catches, Johnston ranked 13th in yards after the catch per reception (8.3), not far behind 2022 first-round picks Treylon Burks (8.6) and Jameson Williams (8.4). (Flowers and Addison ranked 71st and 97th, respectively.)
Johnston’s strong pre-draft testing — he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash and ranks in the 97th percentile among wide receivers in the broad jump — is most obvious in his elusiveness. Rarely did the defender closest to Johnston bring him down. According to Pro Football Focus, he forced 19 missed tackles last season, tied for sixth best among Power Five conference wide receivers, and did so despite dealing with a minor ankle injury for several games.
Johnston’s 2022 highlight reel is as much a tribute to his deep speed and solid route running as it is a celebration of Johnston’s shake-and-bake ability. Like this 53-yard catch-and-run against Kansas:
Or this 55-yard score against West Virginia, where he made the most of a relatively rare snap in the slot:
Or this 76-yard score against Michigan, in which he skipped past another potential first-round cornerback, DJ Turner, late in their College Football Playoff semifinal:
Even more impressive: Johnston stacked big plays even as he let a handful of others fall by the wayside.
The red flag
Johnston dropped a lot of passes last season. Like, a lot. According to PFF, he had eight drops in 2022, making his 11.8% drop rate one of the worst in this year’s class of wide receivers. Over his three years with the Horned Frogs, he had 13 total drops and a 10.2% drop rate.
Most of his drops tended to come on short- and intermediate-range throws, like screens and drag routes:
Poor technique explains some of Johnston’s struggles. Instead of securing the ball with his hands outstretched, he tended to catch the ball with his body. David Robinson, Johnston’s personal coach, attributed his inconsistency to a habit of looking upfield before the ball’s in his grasp.
“He has been working [on] not turning his head upfield before his eyes and watching him tuck the football before he runs,” Robinson told CBS Sports recently. “So when you see him have certain instances of drops and things like that nature, those are from his eyes pulling out of there too quickly. It’s not that his hands aren’t away from his body, because he does catch the ball well away from his body. It’s just his eye discipline is what he needs to continue to improve at, being consistent with staying locked on the football through the tuck.”
The Ravens can’t be too keen on adding a shaky pair of hands. They finished 27th in the NFL last season in overall drop rate (5.7%), according to TruMedia, while their wide receivers finished 28th (6.2%), dragged down by Bateman (17.9%) and Demarcus Robinson (6.8%).
It’s up to the Ravens to determine how chronic Johnston’s college flaws might become. Over the past three seasons, according to PFF data, there’s been little correlation between a top prospect’s drop rate in their final college season and their drop rate in their rookie season. Amon-Ra St. Brown, for instance, had an 8.9% drop rate at USC in 2020 — but just 3% over his standout first two seasons with the Detroit Lions.
DeCosta has bet on turnarounds before. He took Bateman No. 27 overall in 2021 and Marquise “Hollywood” Brown No. 25 overall in 2019 despite worrisome drop numbers. The results in Baltimore have so far been unfavorable.
Johnston’s athletic profile, though, suggests his floor could be higher. He has bigger hands (68th percentile among wide receivers) than both, a huge wingspan (96th percentile) and the jumping ability (40 1/2-inch vertical leap) to make up for the occasional mistake. At the NFL scouting combine in March, he acknowledged with little prodding that teams have asked about his body-catching tendencies.
“I hear it, I take it as constructive criticism and then just run with it,” said Johnston, a team captain at TCU. “It’s something I’ve been working on, playing as that bigger receiver up front, just being an all-around physical force.”
It’s something Johnston will need to fix. If he does, he’s someone the Ravens could need.