He is an otherworldly multi-threat talent who has forced his way into the Most Valuable Player conversation, but not because of “The Spin” or his budding relationship with speedy rookie receiver Hollywood Brown, though those are certainly important parts of this feel-good story.
Though Brown has certainly captured our imagination with his ability to stretch the field despite nagging ankle problems, it was Mark Andrews who quickly became Jackson’s security blanket when the two were rookies last season.
That relationship has only grown this year and the position has evolved into a three-headed monster for opposing defenses as Hayden Hurst and Nick Boyle have also played larger roles in a Ravens offense that might not be “revolutionary,” but was described by the network commentators during Sunday’s game as the most “creative” in the NFL.
Of course, that was another nod to Jackson’s unique skill set, but the tight ends play a huge role in allowing him to fully exploit that talent, both as strong route runners who command the attention of opposing linebackers and in the blocking schemes that have enhanced the team’s top-ranked rushing attack.
In Sunday’s game, they combined for 12 catches, 151 yards and two Andrews touchdowns, and it was the veteran Boyle — known more as a blocker in his previous four seasons — who led the trio with 78 yards.
“It’s good that everybody is kind of seeing it now," coach John Harbaugh said during his Monday press conference. “He [Boyle] is getting, probably, more opportunities now than he has in the past, and he’s improved also. But he’s kind of the ringleader of those three guys — really, four guys, because Pat [Ricard] is in that group — in that room most of the time. Those guys just … they’re tight. They have a great relationship. A triple-braided cord is not easily broken. And that’s one of our triple-braided cords right there, those guys.”
The Ravens have a long history of strong tight end play, dating to the 2000 season when Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe helped lead the Ravens to their first Super Bowl and the following year helped mentor rookie Todd Heap, who would be a cornerstone of the team’s offense for the next decade.
Dennis Pitta studied under Heap during his rookie season in 2010 and quickly bonded with quarterback Joe Flacco, playing big roles in the run to the AFC title game in 2011 and the Ravens’ second Super Bowl victory the following year. Though serious hip problems would shorten his career, he closed it out with his best statistical season in 2016.
Still, it’s the nature of the position that tight ends generally are overshadowed by the stars at the other offensive skills positions — or, in the case of the Ravens, one particular defensive superstar. This season doesn’t figure to be an exception with Jackson’s heroics capturing the imagination of football fans all over the country, but Andrew, Boyle and Hurst rank first, third and fifth on the team in receiving yards and already have exceeded their total of 928 combined yards last season.
They are on pace to roll up 1,687 yards among them, which would shatter the team record for yards gained at the tight end position set when the three of them, with the help of Maxx Williams, rolled up a combined 1,071 yards last season. The Ravens have had only two other seasons (2001 and 2005) in which their tight ends combined for more than 1,000 yards.