Preseason games are typically cast as meaningless affairs featuring players in danger of not making a roster.
Just don't tell that to Dennis Pitta.
Pitta, a second-year tight end, started in the Ravens' 13-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener for both teams last Thursday, and his presence with the likes of quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and wide receiver Anquan Boldin was perhaps the most significant indicator of his evolution in the NFL.
"It meant a lot," Pitta said this week. "I think it's a culmination of a lot of hard work, a lot of preparation. Obviously, it's more important to be there when the regular season starts and when the games really mean a lot, but this is another step in that process. And being able to showcase what I'm capable of and the value that I can bring to this team to help us be successful, that's really what's important. It's about the team and us moving forward as an offense and being able to grow and develop chemistry with one another."
The Ravens are counting on Pitta and fellow tight end Ed Dickson to develop quickly after parting ways with Todd Heap, the franchise's all-time leader in touchdown catches (41).
Training camp opened with Dickson running with the first offense, but a pulled hamstring sidelined him for four days of practice and the opener against the Eagles.
Pitta took advantage, leading the offense in receptions (four) and yards (47) in the loss in Philadelphia.
Dickson returned to practice Saturday and has slowly begun reclaiming his place with the first-team offense. But Pitta continues to be a fixture there, too.
The coaches have emphasized that they are comfortable with inserting either player as the starter, and Flacco said both players are capable of filling the void at tight end.
"Dennis is a hell of a player. So is Ed," Flacco said. "We've got two tight ends that are great athletes, have great hands. One day means absolutely nothing in the middle of training camp."
Pitta already shares some similarities with his predecessor and former mentor. Both Heap and Pitta are physically impressive tight ends (Heap is 6 feet 5 and 252 pounds, while Pitta is 6-4 and 245) who are devout Mormons and enjoy playing golf.
On the first day of training camp, Pitta dropped a pass, and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo loudly joked, "Heap would've caught it."
Pitta said he doesn't concern himself with being compared to Heap.
"I wouldn't frown on that typecast at all. That's something that I would embrace," Pitta said. "Todd's a great player, but I think I'm different from Todd, and he's different from me. So it is funny how I've kind of followed his footsteps here. But if you want to make that comparison, I'm fine with it."
Last season, Pitta caught just one pass for one yard and was employed primarily as a blocking tight end in obvious rushing situations. After Heap's 40 catches for 599 yards and five touchdowns, Dickson was the more productive receiving tight end, making 11 grabs for 152 yards and one touchdown.
"When you know you're capable of playing at a high level and you don't really get the opportunity to do so, it's always tough," Pitta said. "But I understood what my role was last year. With Todd Heap being a Pro Bowl tight end, I knew that he was going to get the bulk of reps in that part of the offense, and that didn't bother me at all. Todd's a great guy, and he certainly deserved everything that he's gained. So I understood that last year. Coming into this year, I've been given more opportunities to do what I feel like I'm best at — running routes, catching the football and creating mismatches in the defense. So I'm excited to kind of be able to play that role a little bit more."
At BYU, Pitta was a consensus All-American who caught 145 passes for 1,912 yards and 14 touchdowns in his final two seasons there. Prior to Pitta being selected in the fourth round, some media reports compared him to Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
However, the Ravens took Dickson one round earlier, and tight ends coach Wade Harman said the organization is high on both players.
"The thing we knew about them when we drafted them [is] they were good receiving guys," Harman said earlier in camp. "And everything that we see out there, we're confident that that's good, and they're showing that. They're doing well, they're catching the ball. They're very willing, and they're very smart guys. And they're doing a nice job picking up what we're doing."
If there's one area that Pitta relinquishes to Dickson, it's the ability to be a deep threat on routes. Dickson's speed and athleticism makes him a viable option downfield, but Pitta has been showing off a knack for finding soft spots in coverages.
That's a recent development from his first season, which Pitta said feels like a long time ago.
"Last year, just trying to learn the offense and trying to know your assignments and get adjusted to the game at the NFL level, it's a lot to take in and a lot to think about every day," he said. "So you don't exactly play to the level that you're capable of playing all the time. This year, having that foundation from from last year, knowing the offense, being comfortable with what I'm doing, being adjusted to the speed of the game and everything else, I feel so much more comfortable now and so much more confident."