Rookie receiver James Proche could be the answer at returner for the Ravens

The Baltimore Ravens are known for their great play on special teams as much as they are for their long-standing tradition of playing great defense. Year in and year out they are among the league’s best in the third and often underrated phase of the game. Their sensational special teams unit is headlined by the specialist trio that is famously known as the Wolf Pack and is made up of kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch, and long snapper Morgan Cox.

As great as their kicking and coverage units have been, the Ravens have lacked a dynamic talent at the returner position since Jacoby Jones left via free agency following the 2014 season. He was a dangerous threat to score on both punt and kick return no matter how far back he had to retreat to field a kick or how many would-be tacklers were in close proximity to him by the time the ball got there.

Baltimore has struggled to find consistency and productivity from that role in the years since and has tried to put several players back there that includes prolific returner Devin Hester in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career but he just didn’t pose the same threat that Jones did or that he himself was in his prime.

The other players that they have plugged in back there lacked the boldness, aggressiveness, judgment, and ability to find a lane or crease in the opposing team’s coverage unit to really make an impact. Lack of ball security and poor judgment have also plagued nearly all the failed attempts to find the next Jacoby Jones.

Jones’ role with Ravens was of vital importance since he could set the tone of game or half, spark a comeback, flip a field or snatch the soul out of the opposing team be extinguishing any last sliver of hope that they could rally back from behind to beat the Ravens with one of his great returns that he either took all the way to the house or at least set the offense up with advantageous field position.

The answer to their woes at returner may have just arrived in the form of rookie receiver James Proche who the team traded up for to select in the sixth round of this past April’s draft out of Southern Methodist University. He returned both kicks and punts for the Mustangs in addition to being a standout pass catcher and Ravens’ special teams coordinator Chris Horton believes that he has the tools to be a good returner at the pro level.

“He’s good catcher, he’s good underneath the ball and he could get vertical pretty quick,” Horton said. “He loves football, he has the right mindset, he has that DNA that we look for.”

The ability to get up the field in a hurry vertically and not waste much if any time dancing around horizontally is a vital quality for a good returner to have because it allows them to get up to full speed quicker, make a lane if there isn’t one at first glance and eliminate any potential angles the gunners or any other member of the coverage unit might have to go along with the momentum they built charging full speed ahead after kickoff.

In college, Proche averaged nearly 20 yards –19.8 to be exact—per kick return and 7.6 per punt including a career-high 9.6 in his senior season. While he never returned a kick or punt for a score or even registered a return longer than 37 yards, he showed enough on film to make Horton and the rest of the Ravens scouting and coaching staff believe in his ability to contribute in more than just the offensive phase of the game.

“I’m looking forward to getting him out there on the field and just see what he can do because I was able to validate from the college tape of what type of returner he is,” Horton said. “When we get a chance to get out there and see him in person, I think that’s going to hold true to what my eyes saw and what the rest of the scouts and coaches saw from James.”

The special teams unit had a bit of an up and down year in Horton’s first season at the helm after taking over for Jerry Rosberg who helped establish the gold standard for so many years. There were lapses and hiccups in lane integrity (Week 6 vs the Cincinnati Bengals) by the coverage units at times during the season as well as some close calls and one punt block (Week 15 vs the New York Jets) allowed by the personal protection units, but the most glaring issue was the lack of production from the return game.

We did a lot of studying this offseason and that’s one we feel like we can be better in,” said Horton. “Whether its how we’re coaching it, how our players are responding to that coaching. I think that’s something we felt like we could be much better. I thought our coverage units were really sound outside of one game we had.”

Jones was a huge part of the Ravens’ Superbowl run in the 2012 postseason as both a receiver and as a returner. He was on the receiving end of the Miracale in Mile High that forced overtime in divisional round and eventually sent the them to the AFC Championship. There are some that believe that he should’ve been named MVP of Superbowl 47 after scoring a touchdown receiving and setting the record for the longest kick return touchdown in NFL history to open the second half before the lights went out.

The Ravens appear primed to make deep playoff run this year, and since Proche might not be to high on the receivers’ depth chart right away as a rookie, he could still make a significant impact early and throughout the season as a returner in his first year in the league and provide that spark in the return game that has been missing for six years and counting.

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