OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Baltimore Ravens rookie wide receiver Zay Flowers darted a few steps to the middle of the field before making a hard pivot back to the sideline, leaving a defender in his wake. He was wide open when he caught the touchdown pass during the red zone practice earlier this week.
“He’s going to break a lot of ankles this year,” a team official said on the sideline.
Flowers, Baltimore’s first-round pick, has been the talk of Ravens training camp for his sleek route-running and his now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t moves in the open field. He’s making a franchise, which has never had a Pro Bowl wide receiver, begin to believe it might have landed the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year with the No. 22 overall pick.
After the first practice of training camp, quarterback Lamar Jackson nicknamed Flowers “joystick” after he juked past Pro Bowl middle linebacker Roquan Smith. After the third practice, offensive coordinator Todd Monken raved about Flowers’ dangerous playmaking ability.
The secret to why Flowers can continually get open is he tries to stay one step ahead, in everything. Flowers always wanted to put in the extra work, ever since he was 6 years old and was doing 100 push-ups for his father. He’s been just as motivated in his first months with the Ravens, whether it’s an extra throwing session with Jackson or more work in the weight room.
Flowers wants to be an important piece of the offense immediately, and he knows that starts with having a great rapport with Jackson. In the weeks leading up to training camp, Flowers texted Jackson to get together in South Florida, where he could run routes and get a better feel for how he throws the ball.
Flowers: “Yo, we going today?”
Jackson: “Yeah, 3 p.m.”
Flowers: “I’ll meet you at the field.”
The work didn’t stop when Flowers got to the Ravens facility. He asked the strength and conditioning coaches to schedule him two extra days of leg work. Flowers stands 5-foot-9, 182 pounds, but there’s a lot of power to his game. He believes strong legs make him so explosive on the field.
"Zay brings a unique personality to it,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's full of energy. He's always ready to go, on point, works hard, does extra, wants to be as good as he can be every day, and he proves it by what he does.”
Teammates have been equally impressed with his maturity off the field.
"If you've ever had a chance to sit down and talk to him, he has a mindset that he's been in the league already for three years,” Ravens offensive tackle Morgan Moses said. “He's willing to ask questions; he's willing to soak it up and learn."
When the Ravens took Flowers in the first round, there was some risk involved. Baltimore’s most glaring need was cornerback, not wide receiver, especially after the team spent $18 million this offseason on Odell Beckham Jr. and Nelson Agholor. The Ravens have also struggled at finding top playmakers at that position, getting a total of two 1,000-yard seasons from 32 drafted wide receivers.
But the Ravens had Flowers as their top-rated wide receiver, a ranking that was cemented after one practice for the East West Shrine Bowl in late January. Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta asked director of college scouting David Blackburn how Flowers looked. Blackburn’s response: “Fast. Best guy there.”
Flowers has been putting on the same show in the first three weeks of training camp, continually getting open with his speed and cutting ability. A running back at the start of his high school career, he made the switch to wide receiver as sophomore and quickly learned what it took to become a great route-runner.
“You got to be a salesman,” Flowers said. “You got to be deceptive and quick.”
It’s been nearly impossible for Baltimore defenders to cover Flowers in one-on-one drills.
Safety Kyle Hamilton: “There’s not a lot of guys in the league that can stop and start like he can."
Cornerback Jalyn Armour-Davis: “Very quick. Very explosive — very.”
Defensive back Brandon Stephens: “Man, they didn’t give him the nickname ‘Joystick’ for no reason.”
Flowers’ biggest impact is what he can do after he makes the reception. Instead of running out of bounds or going to the ground, he is looking to make a move to gain more yards. Last season, Ravens wide receivers totaled 551 yards after the catch, fourth-fewest in the league.
"I always want to score. That's my goal,” Flowers said. “No matter what, at least get an extra 10 [yards] or go get a touchdown. I want to do something to help my team out because there's guys out there running down the field and blocking extra for me. The least I could do is go pick up a few more yards.”
Ravens officials have not been surprised by how Flowers puts extra effort in everything he does.
"I haven't come across many more impressive, face-to-face prospects that I've ever interviewed at the combine [in February] and then here in Baltimore,” DeCosta said. "His story, his resiliency, his ability to just succeed and handle things was really, really impressive.
“And so, it's kind of all those things. It's the ability and how he fits, what he's going to do on the field, but it's also his drive, his mentality, his grit, his growth mindset – all those types of things.”