On one play, Hayden Hurst, the Ravens’ top draft pick out of South Carolina, hauls in a 35-yard pass across the middle after leaving linebacker C.J. Mosley in another zip code.
Not to be outdone, fellow tight end Nick Boyle, he of the former stone hands club, snatches a 15-yard pass out of the air on a crossing route on the next play.
If Hurst and Mark Andrews, a tight end selected in the third round out of Oklahoma, were brought in to replace Boyle and Maxx Williams, then the two veterans aren’t going down without a fight.
In fact, four of the six tight ends on the current roster might make the team, and Boyle and Williams have been impressive in training camp.
“I really think they’re doing very well,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Williams and Boyle. “They’re unique. Nick is moving really well. These two are big, strong guys and they’re blocking people and being physical. They can catch the ball.”
Williams and Boyle, both entering their fourth seasons, have taken advantage of missed time by Andrews and Hurst because of injuries. With the two youngsters in and out of the lineup, Boyle and Williams have gotten more repetitions. Williams has proven to be a better blocker than a year ago and Boyle a better pass catcher.
It’s all part of the evolution of a player.
Two of the greatest players in Ravens history went through a similar process. Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden looked like an NBA power forward when he came into the NFL in 1996. Soon-to-be Hall of Fame inductee Ray Lewis, a middle linebacker, appeared to weigh about only 215 pounds as a rookie.
In two years, they added what can be described as NFL thickness. So have Williams and Boyle.
“I’ve tried to work hard in the offseason. Everyone strives to be bigger, stronger, faster,” said Williams, a second-round pick in 2015.
Williams then looks down at himself and laughs.
“I’m 24, actually a full grown man,” he said.
Williams had two big problems his first three seasons. He wasn’t physical at the line of scrimmage and he couldn’t stay healthy. In his rookie season, he suffered a concussion and multiple legs injuries but still started seven games, finishing with 32 catches for 268 yards and one touchdown.
In 2016, he missed the last 12 games because of a knee injury that required surgery, and he still wasn’t at full strength when he came to training camp in 2017. He ran with a clearly noticeable limp, and also nursed ankle injuries throughout the season.
He played in 11 games last year but started only eight, finishing with 15 catches for 86 yards and one touchdown.
“I was coming off knee surgery coming into camp,” Williams said. “It’s not like they made me come back. I was cleared by all my doctors; it was just a matter of getting into a rhythm. Basically, I had to learn how to run again after being out so long.”
It’s unusual to see Williams running without a limp. But so far in training camp, he has been working all areas of the field as a receiver, sometimes lining up in the slot or as an H-back.
His biggest improvement has been as a blocker. There is no fear of the knee caving in.
“I’ve had another year of recovering,” Williams said. “I feel way better than last year.”
Said Harbaugh: “Maxx has always been able to catch the ball. He has great hands in terms of adjusting and making catches. The thing I’m on him right now about is he makes the tough ones, than drops make the easy ones.”
Boyle was a fifth-round pick out of Delaware. No one will ever confuse him with being another Ozzie Newsome as far as finesse. During Boyle’s time in Baltimore, there has been nothing pretty about his game, except when he attempts to hurdle tacklers.
Boyle is the team’s designated blocking tight end, but he has caught more passes in this training camp than years past. He has found a way to use his body to shield off defenders or just push them away when engaged at the line of scrimmage.
“I have always been categorized that way during my whole career,” Boyle said. “I take pride in blocking, I get satisfaction out of blocking, but I also want to be someone who goes out in the passing game.”
Some might conclude that the additions of Andrews and Hurst forced Williams and Boyle to step up their games. That is true in a sense, but there is no fear of the new tandem.
The competition is welcomed by all of them.
“The way I look at it, they had to draft tight ends,” Williams said. “Both Boyle and I are in the fourth year. If the guys upstairs think these guys are going to help the team, who am I to tell them differently?
“My job is to come in and work hard every day. If I get better and they get better, than our team gets better. I just try to be the older guy in the room and help the two rookies and play football.”
Boyle sees the extra reps as an opportunity to impress the coaching staff and perfect his game.
“I want to be 100 percent on my assignments,” Boyle said. “This gives us more time to fine tune, try to work to perfection. This is the NFL. Every year, someone is chomping for your spot, and that doesn’t allow you to get complacent. The guys they brought in are good guys; we’ve become good friends since day one. They make the tight end room better. “
The Ravens have talked about using the two-tight end offense. Keeping four would allow them to rotate in fresh players. Boyle, though, isn’t concerned about what will be the base offense.
“The coaches seem to like it, but when you hear the coach say whatever personnel, you just get your butt in there,” oyle said. “It’s not like you are calling the plays.”
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“But the more tight ends we keep, the better,” he said, laughing.