The success of this season’s Baltimore Ravens offense will come down to health, but it can be tied even more specifically to Breshad Perriman.
The 2015 first-round receiver out of Central Florida has yet to see action in a game or even a practice in more than a year. His entire NFL experience amounts to no more than his first organized training activities.
Perriman has done little more than light running in that span after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery that cost all of last season and a partial ACL tear he sustained this spring. Perriman had plenty to offer coming into the draft: A bulging 6-foot-2, 212-pound speedster with the suddenness and first step to be an instant difference-maker.
The pre-draft questions about his refinement as a receiver and a runner of complex routes still haven’t been answered. Being on the practice field opposite veteran receiver Steve Smith, and his potential as the deep threat for quarterback Joe Flacco might have offered a glimpse of what he could do for a Ravens offense in need of his kind of game-changing abilities.
Baltimore has plenty of questions on that side of the ball after last year’s 5-11 season, the franchise’s first losing record in the eight that have come under head coach John Harbaugh. Flacco is coming off ACL and MCL tears, and at 31, his safety will largely rest on the shoulders of the No. 6 pick in the draft, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley. Smith is working back from his own season-ending Achilles injury, and the five-time Pro Bowl receiver will be 37 and playing a speed-based position.
Their health is crucial, but concerns could be quelled if Perriman can work his way onto the field. His skill set as a deep receiver could fill a crucial role in offensive coordinator Marc Trestman’s vertical offense, operated by one of the best deep-ball quarterbacks in the game.
It’s something Trestman’s scheme relies on to create splash plays and open routes for tight ends and running backs underneath the coverage. With Flacco and Perriman out last season, the Ravens ranked 24th in pass plays of at least 40 yards and 29th in yards per completion, and Baltimore finished 20th in offensive DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average).
In a schematic sense, Perriman’s presence offers the key to this year’s Ravens offense. However, everything about the No. 26 pick in the 2015 draft and his timetable for a return remain a mystery.
“I wish I did,” Harbaugh told Ravens reporters this week when asked if he had an update. “They had talked about this being the time frame, right about now, mid-August, when he would be back. That was the date I was given back in June.”
It’s not that Perriman would have blossomed into a star in his first pro season, even if he were healthy. The jump from simplified spacing college offenses to complex NFL route trees can be a challenge for any rookie. The difference in game speed between mid-major college games and the NFL is significant. And Perriman still has to prove he has the hands and route-running skills to deliver on a wide range of play calls.
But no player has more potential to change the dynamic of Baltimore’s offense than he does. It’s not in 37-year-old Smith or 35-year-old tight end Ben Watson. It doesn’t live in Mike Wallace’s stone hands or in Kamar Aiken’s rising possession-style game or in whichever one-trick running back earns the most carries in an offense that much prefers to throw the ball.
It won’t even be found in this year’s first-round pick. Stanley’s development is crucial for Flacco’s health, but his job by definition is a protective one. He needs something tangible to preserve. He and everyone else in the offense are looking for that teammate who can present defenses with the threat to go the distance at any given time.
That someone was supposed to be Perriman, or so the Ravens thought on draft day in 2015. More than a year later, they’re still waiting to see the glimpses.
Nate Atkins is an NFL features writer for All22.com. He previously covered the Chicago Bears and the NFL for Pro Football Weekly. You can reach him via email at email@example.com and can follow him on Twitter @NateAtkins_.