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Mike Preston: Ravens tight end battle carries plenty of intrigue, importance for 2021 season | COMMENTARY

When Ozzie Newsome was the Ravens general manager, he always tried to have a big-play tight end on the roster. As a Pro Football Hall of Famer with the Cleveland Browns, he understood the value of the position.

The trend continues even now. Current GM Eric DeCosta doesn’t want just one, but possibly as many as three.

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The Ravens’ tight end search will go deep into training camp and the preseason, with five players competing for backup roles behind starter Mark Andrews, the 2019 Pro Bowl selection, and reserves Nick Boyle and Patrick Ricard, who are both recovering from injuries. Ricard is listed as a fullback, but also plays tight end and on the defensive line.

It’s all part of the new wave of tight ends in the pass-happy NFL. Most of the candidates were impressive in offseason training activities and the mandatory two-day minicamp, particularly third-year player Josh Oliver and 2020 undrafted free-agent Eli Wolf. But the pads weren’t on. That will change starting in late July.

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“Those guys are flashing,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh of the prospects. “They look really athletic. I think all those guys have done exceptionally well. I cannot wait to see them again in pads and, like we said, play out, in terms of who plays the best in those situations.”

Ravens tight end Josh Oliver, acquired this offseason from the Jacksonville Jaguars, was impressive in offseason training activities and the mandatory two-day minicamp.
Ravens tight end Josh Oliver, acquired this offseason from the Jacksonville Jaguars, was impressive in offseason training activities and the mandatory two-day minicamp. (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

Most teams have two-tight end packages in their basic offense, but it is even more important for the Ravens because of their ability to run the football. The Ravens had the top running game in the league the past two years, and the two-tight end sets allow them to muscle up, especially with Ricard in the backfield as a lead blocker.

But having two tight ends on the field at the same time can also allow opposing defenses to “balance up” and make the Ravens somewhat predictable. Offensively, the Ravens want multi-dimensional players at the position.

Not only must the tight ends be able to block, but also beat smaller No. 3 cornerbacks and outrun No. 3 safeties. They can’t just run short and intermediate routes, but go downfield as well.

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“We have a great group,” Andrews said. “Those guys are working extremely hard. You can tell that there’s a hungriness in the group. There’s a healthy competitiveness in the group, but at the same time, we’re also learning from each other. We’re able to just look at each other’s film, look at each other’s routes and critique things, and that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s helped people get better.”

Newsome’s first big tight end signing was free-agent Shannon Sharpe, who was instrumental in helping the franchise win its first Super Bowl title in the 2000 season. The Ravens drafted Todd Heap in the first round the following offseason, and he played 10 seasons in Baltimore before giving way to Dennis Pitta, a fourth-round pick in 2010.

The Ravens drafted Hayden Hurst in the first round of the 2018 draft, then took Andrews in the third. There were visions of the Ravens running a similar offense to the one in New England, where the Patriots had Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but that didn’t materialize because the Ravens traded the disgruntled Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons before the 2020 season.

The move didn’t slow Andrews’ progress. He’s been one of the best tight ends in the league, with 156 career receptions for 2,105 yards and 20 touchdowns.

The Ravens, though, need to find him a running mate. Boyle couldn’t participate in offseason practices because of the major injuries he suffered in Week 10 last year when a hit from Patriots linebacker Terez Hall tore his PCL, MCL and meniscus and fractured his tibia. Before then, Boyle had been known basically as a blocker but had become more of a factor in the passing game the previous three years.

Ricard, one of the best lead blockers in the league, had offseason hip surgery. The prognosis for both players is that they will be ready to start the regular season, but team officials are usually optimistic when opening the season.

Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks with tight end Eli Wolf during training camp practice at the Under Armour Performance Center in 2020.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh talks with tight end Eli Wolf during training camp practice at the Under Armour Performance Center in 2020. (Kenneth K. Lam)

The good thing is that Harbaugh has a good group of fill-in candidates.

The 6-foot-3, 238-pound Wolf runs good routes, and the second-year player out of Georgia been able to find and sit down in holes in coverage. Oliver, a former San Jose State star the Ravens acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason, is a bigger target at 6-5 and 249 pounds and has been just as impressive. Virginia undrafted free-agent rookie Tony Poljan, at 6-7 and 251 pounds, started making some plays and catches in the last day of minicamp, which had to impress some scouts.

The Ravens will find a way to keep one or two, even if they have to stash them on the developmental squad.

“We have a big group right now,” Andrews said. “Obviously, getting back here and being able to see Nick and Pat has been awesome. But then being able to see Eli, Eli has come back and is running incredible routes, doing a lot of great things. Josh Oliver has come in and done a great job. Eric Tomlinson, obviously, is a guy who’s been here before and is doing his thing, then also Ben Mason.”

Harbaugh agreed.

“I’m not too worried about our tight end situation,” he said. “They look good out there so far.”

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