Will Devontez Walker be Lamar Jackson’s No. 1 deep threat?

May 12, 2024

Will Devontez Walker be Lamar Jackson's No. 1 deep threat? - ESPN

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After not receiving a call on the first two days of the 2024 NFL draft, North Carolina wide receiver Devontez Walker picked up the phone during the fourth round and heard the voice of Baltimore Ravens general manager Eric DeCosta.

“How would you feel about catching passes from Lamar Jackson?” DeCosta asked.

Walker soon broke down in tears while talking to DeCosta and continued crying as he spoke with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. For Walker, the emotions had been building since he was 4, when he first told his mother and grandmother that all he wanted to do was play in the NFL.

But the path to the league has been a challenging one for Walker, from a torn ACL to a contentious transfer dispute with the NCAA to a nightmarish Senior Bowl performance. Now, after bouncing around to three colleges, Walker is hoping he has found a home as the newest playmaker for the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player.

“Just hearing that an NFL team values your skill set and you as a person, it just makes you feel good, [like] you’ve done all the right things to get to this point,” Walker said. “It was just a great feeling.”

Walker, the 19th wide receiver taken in this year’s draft, has the potential to be Jackson’s No. 1 deep downfield target. After making his debut at North Carolina on Oct. 14 because of an eligibility issue, he ranked second in the ACC with 656 receiving yards and led the conference with seven touchdown catches.

Walker’s strengths are his size (6-feet-1, 191 pounds), speed and ability to outleap defenders. In eight games last season, he totaled nine receptions on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air.

Walker has patterned his game after A.J. Green, who tormented Baltimore from 2011 to 2020 as a receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. DeCosta compared Walker to Torrey Smith, whose big plays downfield helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl in 2012. In college, Walker and Smith built reputations on explosiveness by outrunning cornerbacks on deep routes. But both came to the NFL with questions about consistently catching the ball.

“[Smith] made big plays when they counted,” DeCosta said. “He’s a glue guy, and I just think Tez has a lot of the same qualities.”

In four seasons with Baltimore, Smith totaled 21 catches on passes of at least 30 yards. That’s still more than double what any other Ravens player has managed over the past 12 seasons.

The deep passing game has been a weak point for Jackson and the Ravens. Last season, he connected on seven passes on throws of 30 yards or more, completing 26.9% of those attempts (which ranked 18th in the league).

This all could change with Walker, who called it an honor to play with Jackson.

“I’ve been watching Lamar since he came out of high school,” Walker said. “He’s somebody that I wished I was on his team, and now that wish is coming true.”

Walker’s path to the NFL has been a challenging one, from a torn ACL to a contentious transfer dispute with the NCAA to a nightmarish Senior Bowl performance. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

‘Thought my season was done’

It was only eight months ago when Walker had come to terms with the most uncertain point of his football career.

“I thought my season was done, honestly,” Walker said.

Walker was looking to transfer to North Carolina in 2023 — his third school since the start of his collegiate career — but the NCAA initially denied immediate eligibility because it considered him a two-time transfer. Walker had previously been on the NC Central roster in 2020 and Kent State’s roster from 2021 to 2022. He believed he qualified to play for North Carolina for a few reasons: He never played for NC Central due to a COVID-19 canceled season, and he wanted to move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to be closer to his ailing grandmother.

North Carolina coach Mack Brown blasted the decision, telling the NCAA “shame on you.” The NCAA board of directors said committee members received threats of violence.

The NCAA eventually reversed course and granted Walker’s waiver in early October. Now, NCAA athletes can play immediately no matter how many times they transfer.

“The whole year, I had no idea that I was going to play at all,” Walker said. “I was 50-50 on declaring for the draft. [I’d] probably be [undrafted] or coming back [to North Carolina]; I didn’t really know at that point, but that was pretty much my mindset. I didn’t think I was going to play at all, so I was pretty shocked when I got that call.”

Walker’s football career has been filled with unexpected turns. Coming out of high school, Walker insisted on playing wide receiver, even though most colleges wanted him to play defensive back. One of the few offers came from East Tennessee State in 2019, but a significant knee injury changed those plans.

To pay for his rehab bills, Walker took a job working at Bojangles, where he ran into some NC Central coaches who had seen his game tape. He was set to play there until the season was canceled during the pandemic.

Walker eventually landed at Kent State in 2021, and he recorded 58 catches for 921 yards and 11 touchdowns during the 2022 season. He had seven receptions for 106 yards and a touchdown against eventual national champion Georgia, which fueled his desire to see how he would stack up at a Power 5 school like North Carolina.

After countless waivers and appeals were denied, Brown eventually was able to call Walker into his office to give him good news. “You’re eligible, big dog!” Brown told him.

“It’s no bad blood between me and the NCAA,” Walker said after being the 113th player taken in this year’s draft. “I’m just thankful they made that decision, and I was able to do what I had to do to get to this point.”

Encountering adversity

Walker didn’t make the best first impression in front of Ravens officials. He dropped five passes at Senior Bowl practices in January, and he was targeted eight times but did not record a catch during the game.

The Ravens felt better when they went back and watched game film of him making tough catches at North Carolina, whether it was pulling in an underthrown pass along the sideline or extending his arms to make the reception when a safety was barreling down on him. It also helped Walker’s stock when he rebounded at the NFL combine in February; he was one of three wide receivers to produce a sub-4.4 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical jump. The others were Xavier Worthy and Xavier Legette, who were both first-round selections.

“The thing that I really like most about him is that he’s encountered some athletic adversity in his life, and he’s overcome,” said David Blackburn, the Ravens’ director of college scouting. “And, he’s a really mentally tough kid, as well as physically tough.”

The Ravens were surprised that Walker was still available in the fourth round. If not for the drops at the Senior Bowl, he would have likely been a Day 2 pick.

Walker was among the standouts at Ravens rookie minicamp last week, and it went beyond him being big and fast.

“I was impressed with how well he moved changing direction,” Harbaugh said. “[He] caught the ball really well. He’s off to a great start.”

The Ravens have repeatedly tried to bolster Jackson’s supporting cast. Walker is the 10th wide receiver drafted by Baltimore since the team selected Jackson in the first round in 2018.

Of those 10 drafted receivers, only two have produced 1,000-yard seasons — Marquise Brown and Zay Flowers — and three currently remain with Baltimore: Flowers, Rashod Bateman and Tylan Wallace. But the Ravens believe Walker can make an immediate impact on a passing game that ranked 21st in the NFL last season because he brings what has been missing in Baltimore.

“He just has vertical explosiveness [and] the ability to get behind coverage, take the top off the defense,” Blackburn said. “He can put pressure on the defense, and he’s able to make some contested catches downfield. I think that bodes well for our offense and our quarterback.”