The comparisons are inevitable.
In the 2010 NFL draft, the Ravens selected a pair of tight ends in Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. The New England Patriots also claimed a pair of tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
That's where the similarities end. Whereas Dickson and Pitta have capably filled the void created when the Ravens cut Todd Heap in the offseason, Gronkowski and Hernandez have sparked an offense setting league records.
So on Wednesday, as the Ravens prepared for Sunday's AFC championship game against the Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Dickson applauded Gronkowski's and Hernandez's accomplishments — and said that he and Pitta have the potential to do more.
"I think with the talent here, we can do the same things or even better than what they're doing right now," Dickson said. "They're doing exactly what their team asks them to do, and [same] here with us. We're both winning games, and it's going to come down to these matchups in the game. Tight ends are going to make plays in this game. Our defense has to stop their tight ends, and [their defense has] to try to stop us."
Statistically, the Ravens tight ends have a ways to go to match their New England counterparts. Gronkowski set an NFL record for tight ends with 1,327 yards, eclipsing the mark of 1,290 set in 1980 by the San Diego Chargers' Kellen Winslow. He also established a new league high for the position with 17 touchdown catches, surpassing the record of 13 shared by the Chargers' Antonio Gates (2004) and the San Francisco 49ers' Vernon Davis (2009).
Gronkowski's achievements overshadowed those of Hernandez, who flourished with 910 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Gronkowski and Hernandez combined for 169 receptions — the most by a pair of tight ends in the same season in NFL history.
Meanwhile, Dickson and Pitta totaled 94 catches, 933 yards and eight touchdowns.
Ravens director of player personnel Eric DeCosta said the organization isn't in the habit of comparing its players with those on other teams.
"But I can tell you that we're extremely happy with Ed and Dennis," DeCosta said during a phone interview from St. Petersburg, Fla., the site of this year's East-West Shrine game, a college football all-star showcase. "Both guys have made a lot of significant plays for us this year. They've been extremely coachable, they've worked extremely hard. … I think [offensive coordinator] Cam [Cameron] has done a tremendous job of finding innovative ways to get these guys open, and we couldn't be more excited about their future. Other teams have great tight ends, but I can tell you that we're ecstatic with our two and we wouldn't trade them for anybody."
The Ravens were prepared to select Gronkowski with the 11th pick of the second round, but New England — one spot ahead — spoiled that plan. The Ravens took Dickson a round later, but the Patriots pulled off another coup in the fourth round, choosing Hernandez in the 15th slot. The Ravens claimed Pitta one pick later.
To be fair, Dickson's and Pitta's responsibilities differ from those of Gronkowski and Hernandez. Because of a Patriots rushing attack that finished the regular season ranked 20th in the NFL, Gronkowski and Hernandez are more integral in the aerial game. Dickson and Pitta are expected to block in the Ravens' run-based offense that centers on two-time Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice.
"We're a little bit of a different team down here," Pitta said. "We don't drop back and throw the ball nearly as many times. We're focused on getting the ball to our running backs a lot of times. So I don't know if the numbers, if you stacked them up against those guys', are really going to tell the truth about a lot of things."
The proliferation of athletic, pass-catching tight ends can be traced to forebears like the Baltimore Colts' John Mackey and the Chicago Bears' Mike Ditka, who passed the torch to the Cleveland Browns' Ozzie Newsome (now the Ravens' general manager) and Winslow. More recently, the position has been highlighted by the Atlanta Falcons' Tony Gonzalez and Gates.
Tight ends have become a matchup problem for defensive coordinators. Often, they are too large and strong to cover with a cornerback or safety, and sometimes they are too quick for linebackers.
"It's hard for any defense to find guys that are 250 pounds that run like these tight ends do and have the ball skills that these tight ends have," New England coach Bill Belichick said Tuesday. "Most of those guys are either pass rushers or they're real good inside run defenders. To have that kind of coverage skill and match up with them is hard."
Rules that have aided the development of passing offenses have increased the value of tight ends, who have become commodities over fullbacks. And teams like the Ravens, Patriots and Houston Texans have developed a pair of tight ends who can attack opposing defenses.
"I just think that the passing game has really grown over the last few years and people are looking for playmakers who come in all different shapes and sizes," DeCosta said. "Some of your playmakers are running backs, some are your receivers and some are tight ends. It's all about finding guys who can make plays for you in various ways."
Sunday's game will feature four of the more promising tight ends. Pitta said he and Dickson have steeled themselves for the comparisons.
"You compare yourself against other players and see how you stack up," Pitta said. "Both Aaron and Rob have had great years. They've been able to catch a lot of footballs and be a big part of that offense. I've got the utmost respect for those guys and what they do. They're very talented players, and Ed and I are excited to be able to go out there and show what we're capable of as well."