Ravens second-year tight end Mark Andrews talks about his involvement in the new look offense.
Lamar Jackson refers to it as street ball.
“It’s just having a great chemistry on the field, great connect,” the Ravens quarterback explained recently. “He finds a way to get open. I just have to throw him perfect passes. That’s street ball.”
He was describing the bond he shares with tight end Mark Andrews, which goes beyond designed plays or spoken cues. But he was really speaking to a more primal union that has helped define the NFL since the forward pass became pre-eminent, the link between rising quarterbacks and elite tight ends.
Trace the lineage of great passers throughout league history and often, you’ll find they peaked with strapping, block-catch hybrids right beside them. From Rob Gronkowski for the New England Patriots all the way back to Kellen Winslow for the San Diego Chargers and John Mackey for the Baltimore Colts, world-class tight ends have been that little something extra in so many high-powered offenses, the element that cannot be countered on crucial downs.
“It’s paramount,” Ravens quarterback Robert Griffin III said. “When you have a tight end who can be a mismatch versus safeties and linebackers, it makes your life a lot easier as a quarterback. … When teams play man-to-man, everybody’s going to have a couple good corners, right? And a good offense is going to have a couple of good receivers. But not everybody has a great safety or a linebacker who can cover that tight end. It’s always a mismatch.”
“The way he plays the game and the way I run routes and the way I see the game is super similar,” Andrews said after Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, in which he caught three passes on third-and-long.
When the Ravens face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, they’ll go against the current ideal for an NFL tight end: Travis Kelce. Kelce was a star before Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes emerged as the most exciting young passer in the league last season, and he played a significant role in facilitating Mahomes’ explosion onto the scene. He led the high-powered Chiefs in targets and catches on the way to finishing with a career-high 1,336 receiving yards in 2018.
Like Jackson, Mahomes thrives on extending plays and improvising. Kelce is often his best friend in these scenarios. Twenty-one of the All-Pro tight end’s catches last season resulted in third-down conversions, tied for fifth most in the league.
Mahomes was so giddy when Kelce returned from ankle surgery this summer that he sprinted from behind and leaped on his tight end’s back.
“He’s another quarterback on the field,” Mahomes told the Kansas City Star last season. “He knows what he needs to do to get open. He knows what he needs to do to get other people open.”
Jackson has made similar comments in describing his symbiosis with Andrews. Both quarterback and tight end said they recognized this connection early in their first workouts together during the summer of 2018. Though Jackson was a backup at the time and Andrews struggled to make his mark as he coped with a soft-tissue injury, they just fit one another.
“It was pretty early on,” Andrews recalled. “I would run a route maybe a little differently than how it was drawn up, and he would see it the same way and would throw it perfectly on time. We’ve had that kind of chemistry pretty early on from the start.”
The bond cohered more quickly than the one Andrews formed with Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma.
“It started in OTAs,” Jackson said. “We’ll start finding holes in defenses. I’ll see it, and Mark does just a great job of seeing it himself. He’ll give me the ‘open’ hands, and I have to give him a great ball and let him get some yards after the catch.”
Their mutual affinity became obvious to everyone down the stretch of last season, when Andrews was Jackson’s favorite downfield target in an offense otherwise dominated by runs.
After an exceptional training camp, Andrews has been Jackson’s first option on third down this season, an oversized beacon in the middle of the field.
Ravens coaches and players sprinkle credit between the team’s three tight ends rather than lavish praise specifically on Andrews. Hayden Hurst, drafted two rounds ahead of Andrews last year, is also a gifted pass catcher. Fifth-year veteran Nick Boyle is the best blocker of three. Together, they allow the Ravens to run “heavy” formations designed for run blocking but still throw out of those sets.
“It’s a good feeling when first off, the quarterback throws you the ball, has trust in you, stays on you at certain times when you might not be open right away,” Boyle said. “He and Mark have an awesome connection, and I think Hayden and I have a good connection with him. Lamar, I think, throws to tight ends more than anybody I’ve ever been around. He sticks on to you and can feel certain things in zone coverages that maybe other quarterbacks don’t.”
The Ravens often play multiple tight ends together, and the three form an unabashed mutual-admiration society.
“I think what jumps off him, whether he’s catching passes or knocking into people, is just his passion,” Boyle said of Andrews. “He has a true love and desire for the game, which is important at this level, because you can see some people fade from that. You pair that with his route-running abilities and his hands and he’s very dangerous. He puts the defense in a lot of hard spots when there are other wide receivers out there who can do the same thing.”
The last point is essential, Griffin said, noting a pass-catching tight end is far easier to neutralize when he’s the sole star playmaker.
“You have to have other guys around them to open them up,” he said. “If you don’t, obviously teams can just double your tight end on third down and in passing situations. Then you have nowhere to go. That’s why you have Hollywood Brown, Miles Boykin, Willie Snead. … You don’t want the tight end to be the only thing. Trust me, [Gronkowski] was a beast, but if they didn’t have [Danny] Amendola and [Julian] Edelman, it would have been harder for him.”
Andrews laughed Thursday when asked if many kids grow up wanting to be tight ends. He played wide receiver for his Arizona high school, but recognized that because of his large frame (he’s now listed at 6 feet 5, 256 pounds), he was likely destined for his current role.
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“I think it’s a unique position and if you’re going to be a tight end, you probably know it,” he said.
He studied three tight ends most acutely as he learned the position: recent Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten of the Dallas Cowboys and Kelce.
He admired Witten’s well-rounded style and deep grasp of his team’s offense. Kelce captured his imagination with sheer explosiveness. And Gonzalez, well, “he was just a beast, one of the greatest of all time.”
If he sees their qualities in himself, he’s still too modest to say so at age 23. But he did acknowledge using Kelce, whom he’ll see across the field in Kansas City, as a measuring stick.
“I don’t know if we’re comparable or whatnot; I’ll leave that for you to decide,” Andrews said. “He has a lot of confidence. He has a lot of swagger to his game. … I think there are certain aspects of that, what he brings to his team and his confidence and swagger — I bring some of that as well.”