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Will Devontez Walker be the biggest threat to Lamar Jackson?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – After not receiving a call through 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 if you received passes from Lamar Jackson?” DeCosta asked.

Walker soon broke down in tears while speaking to DeCosta and continued to cry while speaking to Ravens coach John Harbaugh. For Walker, emotions have been building since he was four, when he first told his mother and grandmother that all he wanted to do was play in the NFL.

But the road to competition has been challenging for Walker, from a torn ACL to a controversial transfer dispute with the NCAA to a nightmarish Senior Bowl appearance. Now, after attending three colleges, Walker hopes he has found a home as the newest playmaker for the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player.

“When you hear that an NFL team appreciates your skills and you as a person, it just makes you feel good. (like it) You did all the right things to get to this point,” Walker said. “It was just an amazing feeling.”

Walker, the 19th wide receiver in this year’s draft, has the potential to become Jackson’s No. 1 deep downfield target. After making his North Carolina debut on October 14 due to 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-foot-1), speed and ability to outrun 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 AJ Green, who tormented Baltimore from 2011 to 2020 as a receiver for the Cincinnati Bengals. DeCosta compared Walker to Torrey Smith, whose big plays on the field helped the Ravens to a Super Bowl in 2012. In college, Walker and Smith built a reputation for explosiveness by outrunning cornerbacks on deep routes. But both came to the NFL with questions about catching the ball consistently.

(Smith) made big plays when it 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 accomplished over the last twelve seasons.

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

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

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

‘Thought my season was over’

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

“Honestly, I thought my season was over,” Walker said.

Walker wanted to transfer to North Carolina in 2023 — his third school since beginning his collegiate career — but the NCAA initially denied his immediate eligibility because it deemed him a dual transfer. Walker was previously on the NC Central roster in 2020 and on the Kent State 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 condemned the decision, telling the NCAA “shame on you.” The NCAA Board of Governors said committee members were threatened with violence.

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

“All year I had no idea I was going to play,” Walker said. “I was 50-50 when I declared for the draft. (ID card) probably (not drawn up) or come back (to North Carolina); I didn’t really know it at the time, but that was kind of my thinking. I didn’t think I was going to play at all, so I was quite shocked when I got that phone call.”

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

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

Walker ultimately 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, fueling his desire to see how he would do it at a Power 5 school like North Carolina.

After numerous waivers and appeals were denied, Brown was finally able to call Walker into his office to give him good news. “You qualify, big dog!” Brown told him.

“There’s no bad blood between me and the NCAA,” Walker said after becoming the 113th player taken in this year’s draft. “I’m just grateful that they made that decision and that 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 during Senior Bowl practices in January and 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 hauling in an underthrown pass down the sideline or extending his arms to make a reception when a safety was on rushed at him. It also helped Walker’s stock as he rebounded at the NFL combine in February; he was one of three wide receivers to produce a sub-15-foot dash and a 40-inch vertical leap. The others were Xavier Worthy and Xavier Legette, both first-round draft picks.

“What I like most about him is that he’s been through some athletic adversity in his life and he’s overcome it,” said David Blackburn, the Ravens’ director of scouting. “And he is a very mentally strong boy, but also physically strong.”

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

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

“I was impressed with how well he changed direction,” Harbaugh said. “(He) grabbed the ball very well. He’s off to a great start.”

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

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 was missing in Baltimore.

“He just has vertical explosiveness (And) the ability to get behind cover, get to the top of the defense,” Blackburn said. “He can put pressure on the defense and he’s able to make some contested catches down the field. I think that bodes well for our offense and our quarterback.”

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