The Ravens will begin preparing for Sunday's season opener against the Buffalo Bills at M&T Bank Stadium with 53 players on the active roster sitting in meetings and working out on the field. Two players who are healthy, however, will be forced to watch from a distance.
When the team returns to its headquarters in Owings Mills on Tuesday, tight ends Darren Waller and Nick Boyle will be unable to join them as they will be serving multiple-game suspensions for violating the NFL's drug policy. Waller, a sixth-round pick in the 2015 draft, will miss the first four games of the season because of illegal substance use. Boyle, a fifth-round selection in the same draft, will sit out the first 10 contests for his second performance-enhancing drug violation.
It is a pump-the-brakes moment for a pair of players who enjoyed decent showings in the preseason. Waller finished second on the team in receiving yards (84) and third in catches (eight). Boyle caught six passes for 46 yards.
"I learned a lot from it," Boyle said last week, referring to the suspension. "But it's hard thinking about it now after going through the whole offseason with the team and leading to that. But you can't really look back. You can only keep going forward. The biggest thing is to have a really good plan for the time I won't be here. If I can put a really good plan together — which I think I will — with the workouts that I have to do, when I come back, I can hop right back in."
Asked how he is dealing with his coming suspension, Waller replied, "I don't. I just come to work every day and deal with it one day at a time and work as hard as I possibly can and show my teammates I'm reliable and accountable. That's all I can do. If I try to think too much about everything like if I'm going to be on the team or my future, I may not be doing what I need to do today to set me up the right way. So I just keep it as simple as possible."
Waller and Boyle played significantly in the preseason because of a spate of injuries that plagued the tight end position. Projected starter Benjamin Watson tore his right Achilles tendon in the Ravens' third preseason game against the Detroit Lions on Aug. 27 and is out for the entire season. A broken finger prevented Dennis Pitta from playing in a single exhibition contest, and an unspecified injury sidelined Maxx Williams for the final three games.
"Thank goodness we have those guys," coach John Harbaugh said of Boyle and Waller. "I would put Daniel Brown in the same category. He has taken a lot of reps, too. It is very valuable because that is the only football they are going to get. ... They are guys that figure into our future, yes."
The tight ends know they might have been in line to get more playing time if not for their suspensions. But they agreed that playing the what-if game is pointless.
"I've got to deal with the cards that I've been dealt and work on my situation," Waller said. "I can't ask for another situation. I've got to deal with it and fight through it and show the people who took a chance on me when they drafted me that I am accountable and I am reliable."
Waller and Boyle avoided the anxiety and agony of final cuts on Saturday knowing that their suspensions did not count against the team's 53-man active roster. The Ravens did a lot of roster juggling in the last few days, re-signing running back Justin Forsett after cutting him Saturday and signing wide receiver/kick returner Devin Hester to a one-year deal. But the status of Waller and Boyle will be determined when they complete their suspensions.
For now, the tight ends know they will be relegated to working out on their own accord because they are not permitted to go to the team's facility in Owings Mills and train, study or otherwise pal around with teammates and coaches.
Boyle said replicating what the tight ends did in practice in training camp and the preseason is not that difficult.
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"If you've been paying attention to practice, you can manipulate all the drills you do in practice," he said. "You know the routes you have to run. You know the footwork you have to do. So as long as you can have a Juggs machine or someone throwing you the ball, you can work on your run-blocking and everything by yourself. So you really just have to carry the drills and bring them home."
Waller agreed, but added that training away from the team is more of a mental roadblock than a physical one.
"It's got to be from within," he said. "You've got to envision yourself out there with your teammates making plays so that you [are able to] come back while you're doing the mundane things where you may not be out here with the guys and having energy and camaraderie. ... It's a matter of, do you really want to capitalize on the opportunity? I feel like if I don't have motivation to do that, then I don't need to be here."
Still, Boyle and Waller will be relegated to the comfort of their sofas while watching their teammates play. Pitta, who has played in just seven games in the last three seasons because of injuries, empathizes with them, but expressed confidence they will rebound quickly.
"They're both young players who are good players, and they asked a lot of questions because they want to get better whether they were going to be here or not," he said. "That's part of the process for them. I'm excited for what those guys have in store for their future, and we're excited to get them back as soon as they can."