Since taking the reins from Joe Flacco in 2018, Lamar Jackson’s aptitude as a passer has grown into a regular subject of debate for hot-take artists and sports talk shows. The Baltimore Ravens’ star quarterback has taken his share of arrows for missed throws, though seemingly on a more frequent basis than his MVP peers.

But for all the criticism Jackson has garnered over the past four seasons — some warranted, some not — the caliber of the Ravens’ receiving corps has rarely contextualized the discussion.

That, of course, seems foolhardy. How much airtime did the Miami Dolphins’ acquisition of Tyreek Hill receive this offseason? What about the wailing and gnashing of teeth brought about by the Green Bay Packers replacing Davante Adams with rookies and some post-prime veterans? And how about the outcry stemming from the Chicago Bears’ near-total lack of investment in Justin Fields’ offensive help?

All those narratives remained present throughout the offseason. Yet, for Jackson, consideration of his supporting cast generated remarkably little traction in the national discourse. Mark Andrews gave Jackson a security blanket and a touchdown maven in the red zone while Marquise “Hollywood” Brown provided true deep speed to stretch opposing defenses.

Still, since emerging as the starter in Baltimore, Jackson has lacked the crutch that many of his QB peers enjoy: a bona fide “X” receiver.

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For all the positive traits Jackson’s receiving corps have offered, none featured a true ball-winner along the boundaries who can also reliably separate from defenders over the middle and vertically. Aaron Rodgers had one in the aforementioned Adams. Josh Allen has Stefon Diggs. Joe Burrow has Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins. Even Kirk Cousins has Justin Jefferson. Those wideouts create a de facto easy button for their signal-callers to spam, and the results speak for themselves.

But at long last, Jackson might finally have such a field-tilting presence in his huddle: second-year receiver Rashod Bateman.

A late first-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, Bateman entered the league undervalued. During his three years at the University of Minnesota, he consistently demonstrated the ability to get over the top of the defense and pick contested passes out of the air. During his 2019 campaign — the last full season in college due to the COVID-19 pandemic — he recorded the second highest single-season receiving total in program history (1,219), an increase of more than 73% of his freshman-record-setting debut in 2018.

Bateman’s NFL career hit a snag early due to a groin injury and subsequent surgery just before his rookie year. He returned for the final 12 games of the season, but the national media had largely lost interest. As a result, many missed the solid production Bateman delivered as a 22-year-old: 46 catches on 68 targets for 515 yards and a score.

The expectations have risen for Bateman’s follow-up. Brown departed Baltimore in a draft-day trade, taking away the offense’s premier vertical threat. The offensive line also took the field without left tackle Ronnie Stanley, placing even more pressure on the passing game.

Under those conditions, Bateman delivered the biggest play of his young professional career.

One field-tilting play doesn’t provide proof of concept for Bateman, but it represents a strong start to a potential breakout campaign. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Bateman created 5.6 yards of separation from the nearest defender on the touchdown, an amount the analytics service deems “wide open.” Furthermore, the route doesn’t seem like an outlier for the wideout. Jackson also targeted Bateman on a deep cross as well as some quick hitters near or behind the line of scrimmage, the football version of a three-and-D basketball player.

A wideout with that type of usage looks unlike most of what the Ravens have put around Jackson. Rather, it resembles how the stars on the earlier list of prototypical “X” receivers operate.

Certainly, Bateman still has a long way to go before maturing into the complete weapon the Ravens envisioned when they selected him last year. His arsenal of releases doesn’t yet match the stars he aims to emulate and, in Baltimore’s run-focused scheme, his blocking will continually come under the microscope. But that also applies to countless young pass catchers across the league who have yet to showcase the game-breaking ability Bateman appears to possess.

So while Bateman hasn’t fully arrived yet, Jackson and the Ravens should feel extremely encouraged by what he has demonstrated so far. The wideout has the opportunity to transform the offense into something Baltimore hasn’t seen in years.

Jason B. Hirschhorn
Jason B. Hirschhorn

Jason B. Hirschhorn is an award-winning sports journalist and Pro Football Writers of America member. He has bylines at, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, and other outlets.