Now that the Ravens have declared tight end Dennis Pitta out for the season with a fractured, dislocated hip, his loss is expected to have a serious long-term impact on the offense.
Pitta was a clutch target who was particularly valuable to quarterback Joe Flacco on key third downs and red-zone situations. He is a skilled route runner with arguably the most reliable hands on the Super Bowl champions' roster.
Combined with the offseason trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin to the San Francisco 49ers and the Ravens are now without their top options for contested catches.
"I will say the loss of Pitta is huge, especially when combined with Boldin," said NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Philadelphia Eagles scout. "Third down is the money down in the NFL and those two guys were excellent in that situation. I think Dickson was already carrying high expectations to handle some of Boldin's load and now those expectations are even higher with Pitta's injury. I love Dickson's athleticism. He just needs to continue to improve as a route runner and consistent pass catcher. Those are areas where Pitta had a distinct advantage."
For an offense already dealing with replacing Boldin, this is another serious blow to their outlook.
The chemistry and timing between Flacco and his best friend on the team, Pitta, is hard to replace.
"The impact will be big, especially with the uncertainty at the wide receiver position," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "Dickson is a straight-line guy with a limited feel for finding voids in zone, and separating versus man."
Pitta contributed 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns last season, tying a franchise record for touchdowns by a tight end. In the playoffs, it was Pitta who caught 14 passes for 163 yards and three touchdowns. That included scores in the AFC championship game win over the New England Patriots and in the Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
"Dennis Pitta was tied for fifth in number of targets on third down among tight ends, which is up there with guys like Jimmy Graham and Owen Daniels, elite players," said former Philadelphia Eagles director of pro personnel Louis Riddick. "You're talking situational football. When you watch Baltimore's offense, they used Pitta in ways like Tony Gonzalez is used to get matchups against undersized defensive backs and linebackers where he can use his athleticism to pick up third downs and keep the chains moving."
Dickson is big and fast at 6 feet 4, 255 pounds. The 2010 third-round draft pick caught 124 passes for 1,557 yards and a dozen touchdowns at Oregon.
He started 11 games last season, catching 21 passes for 225 yards while mostly operating as the blocking tight end as Pitta emerged as a big receiving threat.
"Ed was used as a more traditional in-line blocker who did play a bit from a two-point stance, but that's not really his forte," Riddick said. "He needs to improve his route-running, which is one of Dennis' strengths. Dennis' hands are very reliable. Ed can do the same thing, but he's not as dependable as Dennis.
"He's a little more shaky at snatching the ball out of the air and winning contested catch situations. Dennis converting from being a pass catcher to a runner, he's slightly better than that. You're losing a variety of things. You can't necessarily replace an interchangeable player that way."
The Ravens may have to do it by committee.
They could turn to younger players like versatile fullback Kyle Juszczyk playing some H-back. The Ravens are high on former Maryland tight end Matt Furstenburg, an undrafted rookie.
"Juszczyk really played that versatile role at Harvard, and he's more suited to play this role than a true fullback," Riddick said. "The wild card is Furstenburg from Maryland. He's fast, he has enough size and has very good hands. If they can get him to come along, grasp the offense and earn Joe's trust, he's a really good fit. Those guys have to get it mentally, not be intimidated and let the offense utilize the whole playbook."
Two seasons ago, Dickson caught a career-high 54 passes for 528 yards and five touchdowns.
"You have to hope he comes through for you," former Chicago Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel said. "If he doesn't, then you have to adjust. It's really just a case of adjusting to the injury when the one guy goes down. If he's a better blocker and a better athlete, you have to hope he can step to the forefront and you hope Flacco has confidence in him."
The Ravens signed veteran tight end Visanthe Shiancoe to a one-year, $940,000 contract Sunday, but he didn't catch a pass last season in four games for the New England Patriots during an injury-plagued season.
Shiancoe, 33, caught 36 passes for 409 yards and three touchdowns the previous season for the Minnesota Vikings. For his career, the former Morgan State standout has caught 243 passes for 2,677 yards and 27 touchdowns.
"He's a viable backup," Riddick said. "He had some good years back a little bit, but they're not replacing Pitta with Shiancoe. He's a bandaid, but he's a viable bandaid. When you lose a good player and if he's the best guy on the street, then you get him. The big question is how Dickson does thrust into the main role. He's got to step up. They're pros and they have to be able to adjust."
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