"I’m just trying to get better as a person, as a player and just try to keep expanding myself, making myself valuable to the team," said Ricard.
When Patrick Ricard arrived in Baltimore three years ago, Ravens teammates started calling him Project Pat. He was a small-school defensive lineman transitioning to NFL fullback. Replacing Pro Bowl selection Kyle Juszczyk would take some work.
But as an undrafted rookie, Ricard made the Ravens’ 53-man roster. In 2018, he started his first career game. Year after year, Ricard looked less like a project and more like a pro. Last season was a breakthrough: He became Pro Bowl Pat, a heavyweight blocker in the Ravens’ “medieval” run schemes.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said in a video conference call Friday. “I think it’s just a tribute to my coaches here believing in me, giving me the opportunities, my teammates helping me and all the support. It’s definitely helped me in my journey, and every day I’m grateful for it. I’m just trying to get better as a person, as a player and just try to keep expanding myself, making myself valuable to myself and to the team.”
Ricard’s next evolution could be his most ambitious. Over the 2019 season, the Ravens lined up with multiple tight ends on over a third of their plays, one of the NFL’s highest rates. Outside of quarterback, no skill position was more important to their offense; the versatility of Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst helped Lamar Jackson pick apart secondaries and gash run defenses.
On Saturday, the Ravens kept only two tight ends, Andrews and Boyle, on their initial 53-man roster — and one fullback. “I know he’s listed as a fullback,” tight ends coach Bobby Engram said of Ricard last month, “but he does so much stuff for us as a tight end as well.” The Ravens offense was already unique in so many ways; featuring a 290-something-pound tight end would be maybe its most devilish wrinkle.
And it wouldn’t require a reinvention of Ricard’s game, either. He was a slot receiver at times last season, stressing defenses as an atypical motion man. He was an in-line blocker, flanking offensive tackles and chipping edge rushers. He was an H-back, set back from the line of scrimmage. Wherever Ravens tight ends lined up in 2019, Ricard found his way there.
“Really, nowadays, if you’re talking to a coach, they’ll tell you, ‘The tight end, the H-back, the U-back, the fullback, those guys become more interchangeable than ever,’” coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. “You can do the same things with different personnel groups on the field, and it just takes [on] a little different flavor ... because of the type of athlete you put in those spots, but they end up still being the same types of jobs. But the defense has to deal with it differently because of who’s out there and the type of player they are. So Pat gives us a lot of flexibility there.”
At 6 feet 3, Ricard has the length to at least keep edge rushers honest in pass protection. It’s as a receiver where he’d face his greatest challenge as a more conventional tight end.
In 16 games last season, Ricard was targeted 11 times and caught eight passes for 47 yards and a touchdown. He was wide open on all 11, too, but dropped one pass and was missed on two others. Ten of Ricard’s 11 targets came on the same basic play design: play-action pass, throw to the flat. (The one exception: another play-action pass, then a check-down after he’d leaked out.)
Ricard, weighing nearly 300 pounds, was not a vertical threat. He was behind the line of scrimmage or even with it on all but one of his 11 targets. Ricard’s only target with positive “air yards” — the difference between the line of scrimmage and the yard line where the ball got to him — was his first, a 1-yard touchdown catch in the season opener.
Asking Ricard to play more like the explosive Andrews, who averaged 10.8 air yards per target last season, would be unreasonable. Emulating Boyle, himself a standout blocker, is more doable.
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In Boyle’s two most active receiving games last season — he caught four of five targets against the Kansas City Chiefs and five of five against the New England Patriots — he didn’t need to run sophisticated routes to get open. He found seams off play-action, ran shallow crossing routes, flared out to the flat and caught check-downs.
Ricard might not have the quickness to win on a quick out, as Boyle did. But with the gravitational pull Jackson has on defenses, he also might not have to.
“Obviously, he would be limited on some things, because, No. 1, his role in our offense is as a fullback,” Engram said. “He’s so physical. But he’s in our room every day. We’re growing him, we’re learning him and we’re doing more stuff with him in-line. So he’s not your traditional tight end, obviously, but we’re just really focusing on seeing [what] other ways he can help us. Pat is smart; he’s handling a lot of information.”
Some forces in the offense will be beyond Ricard’s control. If the Ravens follow modern personnel trends, relying more on three-wide-receiver sets and less on “heavy” formations, his role could fluctuate. It’s also unclear how Ricard factors into the attack’s hurry-up-and-score plans; he played just two offensive snaps in the second half of the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans.
For now, his job description is classified information. When asked Friday what he’ll do differently in this year’s offense, Ricard declined to go into specifics. Everyone would have to wait for Week 1 to see — the media, the fans, the Cleveland Browns.