The Ravens had just finished Tuesday's practice on one of the hottest days of the summer, but Owen Daniels wasn't quite ready for the workout to be over.
As many of his teammates headed inside, the 31-year-old stayed on the field and did some extra running, putting himself through a few more routes.
"I feel really good," Daniels said afterward. "I had a little [hamstring] issue, but that's all cleared up. That's ready to go. Everything else feels really good. I'm excited to get going this first week."
Daniels is a two-time Pro Bowl selection who has caught 50 or more passes in four of his eight seasons. From 2007 to 2012, he was one of the most productive tight ends in the NFL when he was healthy. However, for much of the summer, his status with the Ravens and how much he'd be able to contribute were unclear.
Daniels didn't practice for about two weeks despite coach John Harbaugh saying that he wasn't injured but was dealing with general soreness. He also sat out the final three preseason games. He obviously didn't need the repetitions in Gary Kubiak's offense, having played in it for eight seasons with the Houston Texans, while Kubiak was the head coach. Still, there was curiosity about how Daniels would mesh with quarterback Joe Flacco and his new team.
"I got a ton of good work in those first two weeks," Daniels said. "Obviously, I would have liked to have been out there those middle two [preseason] games, but we played it smart. Week 1 is the most important thing. In my case, I've been running this offense for nine years. I know it pretty well. We have a game plan in and we're ready to go with it."
Daniels played in just five games last season after fracturing his fibula. He was placed on injured reserve with a designation to return, but he never did play again during the 2013 season. In the Ravens' regular-season opener Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, Daniels is expected to play in his first game of any significance since Oct. 6 of last season.
Across the Ravens' locker room, fellow tight end Dennis Pitta said he can relate to the excitement that Daniels is feeling. At this time last season, Pitta was rehabilitating a fractured and dislocated right hip and wondering whether he would even play at all during the 2013 campaign.
Pitta missed the Ravens' first 12 games, returning in early December, but he was rusty and lacked the explosiveness and self–assurance he had shown in the past.
"I'm certainly excited to be out there and be able to put my best foot forward," said Pitta, who had 29 catches for 169 yards and one touchdown in four games last season. "I'm healthy again finally, I feel at 100 percent. I'm excited to get underway."
For Pitta, this season has taken on a different feel, and not just because of Kubiak's arrival and the offense's transition to a West Coast attack. In the previous four seasons, Pitta had worked with longtime tight ends coach Wade Harman and in tandem with Ed Dickson, whom the Ravens selected in the third round of the 2010 draft, one round before they took Pitta.
But Harman is now on Mike Smith's Atlanta Falcons' coaching staff and Dickson signed a free-agent deal with the Carolina Panthers. Brian Pariani followed Kubiak from Houston to be the Ravens tight end coach and his group includes Pitta and two new Ravens: Daniels and rookie third-round pick Crockett Gillmore.
"Owen is a proven guy in this league. He's a tremendous football player and he's going to be a huge asset to this team, not only because his knowledge of the system but his ability to work in it," Pitta said. "Crockett as well, he does some different things for us and he's physical at the point of attack and able to get down-and-dirty a little bit. We feel really good about our group going forward."
Pitta emerged as one of Flacco's favorite targets during the Ravens' Super Bowl run two seasons ago and he figures to reprise that role if he's healthy. However, one of the marks of a Kubiak offense is the use of two- or even three-tight-end sets, so the Ravens will need contributions from Daniels and Gillmore.
Whether they'd get it was a fair question to ask last month. When he was healthy, Daniels struggled in practice to gain separation from defenders and uncharacteristically dropped a few passes. Then, he suffered the hamstring problem, which he revealed Tuesday after his health status had been debated for the previous couple of weeks.
But Daniels said that all that is behind him and he's ready to move forward as a key contributor.
"I'm just going to do what I can, whatever I'm asked to do," Daniels said. "Hopefully, I'll be out there a bunch. Hopefully, we'll run a lot of two-tight-end sets and keep defenses off balance. I think Dennis and I complement each other very well, especially when we're out on the field together. But whether it's blocking in the running game or pass protection or moving the chains, I'm here to do a job and do it well."
Harbaugh, in full regular-season mode, didn't want to comment specifically on Daniels, other than to indicate that he's practicing. The questions of how fresh and explosive he looks and how big of a role he'll play will have to wait until Sunday to be answered.
"I know the type of guy he is. He is a hard worker," said Ravens running back Justin Forsett, who was also a teammate of Daniels' in Houston. "Even days like this, when it's hot outside and it's tough to get through practice, he's one of those guys still running, still working, doing extra at the end. I trust the work ethic that he puts in. I think he has a lot left in the tank."
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