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Can Damion Ratley Become the Browns Third Receiver?

Browns receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry are recovering from offseason surgery. But Stefanksi still needs a WR3 and Damion Ratley may be the answer.

Damion Ratley has an opportunity in his third year to carve a significant role for himself under the new regime. The offense does not have a clear third wide receiver and if any injuries occur at the position, that player will be in line for increased snaps. The WR3 will be competing with Kareem Hunt and the TE2 for snaps given the rosters talent at skill positions. But Ratley has some intangiables that can be valuable throughout the season.

Kevin Stefanski’s new offensive scheme will lean primarily on running the ball but developing a strong third wide receiver will be important to the Cleveland Browns overall success on offense. Traditional NFL offenses usually viewed slot wide receivers as third on the depth chart, yet as schemes modernize creating mismatches against defensive personnel are more vital to having an explosive offense. Receivers with tremendous speed and an overwhelming ability to stretch the field create natural mismatches. 

Ratley was a sixth-round draft pick back in 2018 under former general manager John Dorsey. Ratley played at Texas A&M behind Arizona Cardinal Christian Kirk and former Browns tight end Ricky Seals-Jones and did not have jaw dropping college production. But he offers a valuable skillset as a deep threat downfield backed by his 4.44 40-yard dash and 23.1 yards per reception during college.

The issue Ratley has faced since being drafted is being given limited opportunities on gameday. According to Pro Football Reference, he played only 258 snaps in 2019 which only equates to 25% of the total offensive snaps. In his smaller sample size Ratley finished last season with twelve receptions for two hundred yards and one touchdown. Even though his production is not eye popping the important statistic to recognize is that eleven of his receptions went for first downs. With limited opportunities on-field Ratley showed enough chemistry with Baker Mayfield to be targeted on third down.

Ratley also showcased his ability to stretch the field with his career long 46-yard touchdown reception against the Cincinnati Bengals in week seventeen. He averaged 16.7 yards per reception last season while also improving his air yards from 7.2 to 12.8 proving the coaches are recognizing his skillset. At the same time, Ratley should be able to benefit on gameday from a healthy Odell Beckham Jr and Jarvis Landry.

In a recent press conference Kevin Stefanksi was asked about the statuses of the two star wide receivers. Stefanksi stated, “As it pertains to Jarvis and Odell, they had two very different surgeries. Odell is free and clear. He’s 100% and looking really good.” Beckham underwent core surgery to repair hip and groin injuries that hampered him all of 2019. Recent workout videos with newly signed New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton are a testament to Beckham’s health and Stefanski’s statement about his full recovery.

On the other hand, Jarvis Landry underwent hip surgery in February which implied a return date of August, with a recovery timetable of six months. During the presser Kevin Stefanksi said, “Jarvis to his credit, he’s looking great. [For] some of the videos I’ve seen of him moving around.” Reading in between the lines of Stefanksi’s comment it is understandable that Landry is not 100% yet, but his recovery is on the positive side.

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Based on the skillsets of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry there will likely be an open competition for the third wide receiver role in the new offensive scheme. According to the Minnesota Vikings personnel usage last season under Stefanski, the third receiver averaged nearly 43% of the offensive snaps. Beckham is a great all-around receiver but lacks size while Landry’s playstyle is best suited underneath and intermediate areas of the field. The skillset the offense currently lacks is a more prototypical “X” receiver, a player with a longer frame and an ability to stretch the field vertically.

Traditionally, an X receiver lines up on the weak side of the formation on an island against a defensive back. After reviewing the current roster, Damion Ratley and 2020 sixth-round draft pick Donovan Peoples-Jones are players that fit that description. Given that Peoples-Jones has great athleticism yet suffered from mediocre quarterback play at Michigan, 2020 seems likely to be a redshirt season for him given the learning curve for the NFL and COVID-19 impacted offseason programs. Given his two years of learning experience, Ratley should be in the driver seat to fulfill that role.

With Peoples-Jones spending majority of the season learning from the sideline, the competition should narrow down to Damion Ratley versus Rashard Higgins. Ratley has athletic traits that could be more beneficial compared to Higgins, enough though they are very similar in terms of physical measurements. Both receivers are over six feet weighing slightly under 200 pounds while Higgins offers less vertical potential posting a 4.64 40-yard dash. Yet, the biggest factor Higgins provides is his legitimate production in the NFL. He posted a career year in 2018 with 39 receptions for 572 yards and four touchdowns. Unfortunately, Higgins was unable to build on that success under Freddie Kitchens and fell out of favor quickly while also being injured.

From Higgins inspiring season in 2018, the analytical figures that are important to compare with Ratley is his Yards After Catch (YAC) and Average Target Distance (ATD). Higgins averaged 3.7 YAC and an ATD of 11.3 yards, comparing this to Ratley’s 3.9 YAC and ATD of 13.4 yards there is an advantage given his smaller sample size. Based on the given information throughout the article, Ratley is making plays further down the field and can move with the ball in his hands. Those attributes are important given Stefanski’s new offensive scheme because play action passes create opportunities for big plays down the field. Receivers that can stretch the field vertically are a necessary proponent for finding consistent separation down the field.

Now it does take more than just raw numbers and analytical percentages to predict a player’s success. Chemistry is extremely important and that played a huge role in Higgins production during 2018. That leaves the underlying argument of COVID-19’s impact on team chemistry. Chemistry is mostly developed with repetitions and based on the Browns limited offseason program extra reps will be scarce. Understanding that Baker Mayfield excels most under play action, getting snaps for players that can stretch the field are important.

Damion Ratley should be the third receiver getting those snaps because his skillset seems the most beneficial. In his limited usage the past two seasons he has been targeted further down field each season, while also showcasing chemistry with Mayfield on third down. The case for Ratley gets stronger with the realization that Higgins provides a very similar playstyle to Jarvis Landry and slot WRs offer less value than an extra tight end in this run heavy scheme.

Ratley is still somewhat unproven but entering the third year of his rookie contract, it is make or break for him. In order to be offered a contract extension or interest as an unrestricted free agent he must perform. Ratley provides the physical intangibles and athletic traits to carve an impactful role on the offense but he must separate himself during training camp.