The best play of Zay Flowers’ career never actually happened.

Two years before the Ravens made the Boston College wide receiver the No. 22 overall pick in Thursday’s NFL draft, Flowers was a junior just looking to make a play. Over a 20-second span of a 41-10 loss to Wake Forest, he showed everything that made his potential so tantalizing.

After lining up out wide, Flowers took a left-to-right end-around and looked for daylight. His first juke against oncoming traffic left a Demon Deacons defender on his behind, having whiffed on a tackle attempt. A “Matrix”-esque balancing act set Flowers up for a right-to-left explosion past four more defenders. Once he turned the corner, he needed just one block to get to the end zone. Flowers got it, then skipped free of a diving tackle attempt just for good measure.

The only flaw in his 73-yard catch-and-run score was a fatal one. “It got called back,” he said at the NFL scouting combine. An illegal block wiped out the play.

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Few sequences might have epitomized Flowers’ draft profile better. Here was a well-rounded receiver, gifted athlete and determined player doing whatever he could to outrun the circumstances outside his control — poor quarterback play, disproportionate defensive attention, a smaller frame, the occasional blown block or missed call.

After drafting a first-round receiver for the third time in five years, Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta on Thursday night called the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Flowers one of the most impressive prospects he’s ever interviewed at the NFL scouting combine. Among a handful of top candidates assessed by the team’s scouting department, Flowers was “by far” the No. 1 prospect, DeCosta said.

“He’s really passed every single test,” he said. “He’s just an explosive, competitive, tough guy who can play outside. He can play inside. So we’re very happy for him and for the Ravens. We think he fits what we’re going to do with [offensive coordinator] Todd [Monken] and just with the personnel that we have very well.”

Here’s why Flowers made sense for the Ravens, and how he could fit the team’s offense in 2023.

Steve Smith Sr.-approved

Throughout the predraft process, former Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. compared Flowers to a player he knows intimately: himself. “He’s caught my eye because he’s kind of like me,” the 5-9, 195-pound Smith said on the NFL Network. That endorsement mattered in Baltimore.

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“If Steve Smith has that much respect for a receiver, you better pay attention,” DeCosta said. “It’s like when [Ravens executive vice president] Ozzie [Newsome] loves a tight end, you know, better pay attention, right? Same deal. So that resonates with me. Steve says, ‘That’s my guy,’ then I’m kind of like, OK, I better pay attention. And so Zay happened to be a guy that I liked as well. So it’s like a perfect DNA match when you’ve got a Hall of Fame, someday, receiver like Steve Smith telling you that he loves you.”

Mired in an underwhelming Boston College offense, Flowers was hard to keep down for long. His production surged from his junior year to his senior year, when he finished with 78 catches on 124 targets for 1,077 yards and 12 touchdowns. He forced 15 missed tackles in 12 games last year and had an impressive contested-catch rate of 58.3%, according to Pro Football Focus.

“My dad always told me, ‘It doesn’t matter about size; it’s about what’s in your chest,’” Flowers, a longtime fan of Smith’s, said in a conference call Thursday night. “He always kept me motivated and said, ‘You have to be like Steve Smith. Steve Smith was a dog.’ So that’s what made me like him and love him and watch him a lot.”

After-the-catch ability

Former Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman rarely asked the team’s wide receivers to turn quick hitters into gold last year. According to Sports Info Solutions, only Devin Duvernay and Demarcus Robinson caught screen passes in 2022. Only Duvernay, Robinson and DeSean Jackson had a catch on a run-pass-option play, meanwhile, and only Duvernay finished with more than one.

Under Monken, that should change. He relied heavily on screens and RPOs at Georgia last season — and he didn’t have a wide receiver nearly as gifted as Flowers, whose 4.42-second 40-yard dash is in the 82nd percentile among wide receiver prospects, and whose broad jump is in the 84th percentile.

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That explosiveness showed up on tape. According to SIS, Flowers ranked second among 60 wide receiver prospects in this year’s class in yards after the catch per game (42.5), and eighth in broken or missed tackles forced per reception (0.31).

“I think one of the things about him is, he’s good on all three levels,” coach John Harbaugh said. “He goes deep. … he runs the intermediate routes, the deep ins and things like that, especially. And then the run after the catch is really special. It is kind of [comparable to] Steve Smith in that sense. I mean, he can catch it and take two or three steps and really accelerate away from a tackle, which is the one thing I really thought jumped out on the tape for me. He’s a strong runner, too, so yeah, he’s going to be part of that.”

Very versatile

Midway through the Ravens’ post-draft news conference late Thursday night, Harbaugh offered a positive update on the team’s wide receiver room. “Everyone knows about Odell [Beckham Jr.],” he began. He called Nelson Agholor an “underrated” signing. Rashod Bateman was in a “great place.” Devin Duvernay “looks great.” Tylan Wallace is “doing a great job.” James Proche II is “in here working hard.”

However the Ravens’ depth chart shakes out this summer, they should have more depth and talent entering Week 1 than they’ve had in years. And wherever Flowers is needed, that’s where he’ll line up. He has the frame of a slot receiver, but on two-thirds of his pass snaps last season he lined up outside, according to PFF.

“I can do whatever you need me to do,” Flowers said. “I can run every route you give me. I can separate. I can make competitive catches.”

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Under Harbaugh, the Ravens have asked their receivers to function as interchangeable pieces, moving around the formation and running whatever the playbook calls for. Flowers’ versatility should make him an instant-impact chess piece. If the Ravens want Bateman and Beckham as their outside receivers, Flowers can line up inside. If the Ravens want another vertical threat downfield, Flowers can do that, too.

“We’ve got kind of a versatile receiving group,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve got a lot of guys, I know [first-year wide receivers coach] Greg Lewis, when we were having our meetings, he really liked Zay as well. His thing was: ‘Let’s take the best player, the most versatile guys, and then move ‘em around in different spots and use ‘em all. And I thought that was something that kind of resonated with all of us.”

jonas.shaffer@thebaltimorebanner.com

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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