It has been easy at times to forget about Hayden Hurst over the Ravens’ first month of the NFL season, the tight end sidelined by a stress fracture in his foot since late last month. But then, he has been easy to overlook, too, his spotlight at least partly obscured since he joined the team.
In late April, the Ravens took the South Carolina star No. 25 overall in the first round of the draft. Not even 45 minutes later, they’d traded up for the No. 32 pick and quarterback Lamar Jackson, a former Heisman Trophy winner who equaled or exceeded Hurst’s 2017 touchdown total (three) in 10 games last season at Louisville. (The post-draft ratio of Jackson questions to Hurst questions felt similarly lopsided.)
Through offseason workouts and training camp, as Hurst was emerging into a dependable downfield threat, seemingly already on quarterback Joe Flacco’s wavelength, coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg were peppered with questions about the team’s overhauled corps of wide receivers. Or Jackson’s role in the offense. Or how that all might affect Flacco.
Three games into the season, the Ravens (2-1) have the NFL’s fifth-ranked scoring offense, and Hurst has not played a snap. Mark Andrews, picked one day and 61 slots later by the Ravens, has been perhaps the league’s top rookie tight end. The team has not needed Hurst as much as first thought, but it has also welcomed his impending return.
On Wednesday, Hurst practiced, albeit with limited participation, for the first time since before his Aug. 25 announcement that he’d undergone surgery. On Thursday, he deemed himself day-to-day ahead of Sunday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers (1-1-1) and said he felt “pretty good” despite a slight limp in walking around the locker room.
“It’s been tough sitting in the training room for four weeks, but I’m excited to get back out there and do whatever I need to do to help the team,” Hurst said.
A former high school standout in football and baseball who played two seasons in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ organization before enrolling at South Carolina, Hurst still remembers his first football injury. Because this is it. “It’s new to me,” he said.
After the Ravens’ third preseason game, against the Indianapolis Colts on Aug. 20, Hurst’s foot was sore. He thought little of it and practiced another three days. When he went to get the foot iced, he complained about the pain, which led to an X-ray, which revealed the stress fracture.
Hurst’s refuge was the weight room, where at South Carolina he’d normally worked twice a day, boosting his weight up 25 pounds and his maximum bench press over 60 percent. He’s been limited mainly to upper-body workouts for the past month, but reiterated Thursday that he’s ready. Mornhinweg said Thursday that he looked “fantastic” in his return to practice.
“I’m chomping at the bit to get healthy and get back out there,” Hurst said.
Just a few yards to his right was Andrews’ locker. Among rookie tight ends, only the Seattle Seahawks' Will Dissly has more receiving yards (151) than the former Oklahoma star (107). According to analytics website Football Outsiders, Andrews is tops among first-year players and eighth overall, ahead of even Kansas City Chiefs star Travis Kelce, in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, a measure of value on plays in which a player catches a pass.
“He and I are both dynamic players, and it's really hard for a defense to try to game-plan for that,” Andrews said of Hurst. “You're trying to look at one person, the other person's going to hurt you and make you miss. It's going to be huge. I'm excited to be able to get those packages in. We're both on the field at the same time. It's going to be tough on defenses, like I said, and it's going to be big for this offense.”
At tight end, there’s more than enough playing time to go around. The distribution of snaps so far has been relatively egalitarian: 135 for Nick Boyle, 109 for Maxx Williams and 84 for Andrews. With Hurst’s possible return, the Ravens could turn to tight end-heavy sets with even greater frequency.
According to Pro Football Focus, the Ravens last season used "11" personnel — one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers — on the lowest share of plays in the NFL. They ranked first, however, in usage of one-running back, two-tight end (“12” personnel) and two-running back, two-tight end (“22” personnel) sets.
So far, the Ravens’ “12” personnel packages have fallen from 35 percent of their offensive game plan to 23 percent, while their “22” personnel has remained stable (11 percent), Sharp Football Stats data shows.
“We have some tight ends that are really good in run-game stuff but are undervalued, underrated in some of the stuff with the passing game,” Flacco said Wednesday. “I think when we can get our play-action going, it doesn’t really matter which one of those guys is in there at tight end, whether it’s Mark [Andrews] or whether it’s Maxx [Williams] or Nick [Boyle]. I think those guys all have the ability to catch the ball and get open when you need to. We just have a lot of guys right now.”
It was easy to overlook Hurst then. It likely won’t be for much longer.