Mark Andrews had just signed a contract that would make him a wealthy man, the fulfillment of a fantasy shared by almost every young athlete grinding toward a professional career.
He was pleased by the recognition of his talent and drive but seemed baffled by the notion that a $56 million reward might foster complacency or conversely, push him to do more.
“I don’t think that money or having a longer-term deal makes a difference in my head,” he said, reflecting back on that moment in September, a week before he began one of the greatest tight end seasons in NFL history.
That’s not hyperbole, by the way. Andrews is threatening all-time Ravens records for receptions and receiving yards, but the quality of his season goes beyond such parochial standards. You have to reach for names such as Travis Kelce, Tony Gonzalez and Kellen Winslow to find tight ends who have caught passes and rolled up yardage as prolifically as he has in 2021. And he’s the league’s fourth-best run blocker at his position, according to Pro Football Focus.
Andrews, 26, has never hidden his ambition to join Kelce, George Kittle and former Raven Darren Waller in the blue-chip tier at his position. At the same time, he’s resolutely team-first with most of his comments, so you sense him turning away slightly when the subject is his personal march on history. He’d rather beat the Los Angeles Rams and improve the Ravens’ playoff odds Sunday than break a long-standing record.
“It’s a cool thing,” he said. “It’s a cool thing to be able to put up big numbers and make big plays and try to help this team out and win games, but at the end of the day … I’m a team guy. All I really want to do is win games, and that’s all I’m trying to do. It’s cool to be able to have these numbers and do these types of things, but if we’re not winning games, nothing else matters to me.”
That said, it’s not difficult to find others who want to brag on Andrews.
“He’s definitely one of the best in the league,” Ravens tight ends coach Bobby Engram said. “There’s always going to be debates — one, two or three? I’m biased, so I think he’s No. 1. But Kittle’s talented, and Kelce’s talented, and there are some other guys, the young guy in Atlanta [Kyle Pitts]. But I mean, Mark is — I’m really proud of how he works. He’s a guy who cares about every detail of being a tight end, and he works at it.”
This is the refrain you hear over and over from coaches and teammates — how Andrews’ devotion never seems to wane, though he established himself as a key member of the organization long ago.
“I can’t speak highly enough about how dialed in and competitive he is on a day-to-day basis, whether it be at practice or in meetings,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “He’s doing a great job being a leader out there on the field. He’s a great communicator. I think his game is really rounding in. … I don’t know exactly what other tight ends are doing this year, but I have a hard time imagining anybody is playing better than him.”
Veteran middle linebacker Josh Bynes was asked how he might cover Andrews. “Oh man, I would put about three people on him,” he said.
There are two prongs to consider when we try to place Andrews’ season in history.
Let’s start with the Ravens records. He has already raced past the best statistical seasons posted by tight ends Shannon Sharpe and Todd Heap, both of whom made Pro Bowls in Baltimore. With 93 receptions, he’s 18 ahead of Heap’s top total with the Ravens and 20 ahead of Sharpe’s. With 1,187 yards, he’s more than 300 clear of Heap and Sharpe’s Ravens peaks.
He needs just 15 more receiving yards to break Michael Jackson’s single-season record for the team, set in 1996. He needs 11 receptions to eclipse Derrick Mason’s record, set in 2007.
“I’m definitely aware,” Andrews said. “Someone said [Jackson’s record has] been around for like 26 years, and that’s a big thing. That’s something where your name is stapled into an organization and a franchise, and not many people get that opportunity. So, that’s going to be, obviously, a huge honor, if I’m able to do that and get that.”
But what about the second prong, concerning all-time-great seasons at his position?
Andrews came to the league in a golden age for tight ends, with Kelce piling up unprecedented receiving statistics, Kittle dropping jaws with his all-around athleticism, Waller carrying his team’s aerial attack and Rob Gronkowski putting the finishing touches on a career that will certainly place him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. There’s even Tight End University, a Nashville-based convention of sorts organized by Kittle, Kelce and former Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen. Andrews attended last summer, sharing trade secrets with his famous peers.
So this is no easy age in which to vie for first team All-Pro at the position. With the caveat that it’s unfair to compare receiving numbers today with those posted by Hall of Fame tight ends such as Colts great John Mackey and former Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, we can say that few tight ends have produced seasons clearly superior to Andrews’ 2021.
With two games to go, Andrews already ranks 15th in single-season yards for a tight end. He would need 229, not out of the question given his recent production, to match Kelce’s record total from last season. No tight end can match Kelce’s peak as a receiver; his 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons all rank among the top 10 at the position in yardage, and he caught at least 97 passes in each of those years.
Kittle’s 2018 is hard to beat for big-play punch; he rolled up 1,377 yards and averaged 15.6 per reception. But Andrews already has him beat on touchdowns (9 to 5) and first downs (69 to 60).
Gronkowski reached absurd peaks with the New England Patriots, accumulating 90 catches, 1,327 yards, 69 first downs and 17 touchdowns as a 22-year-old All-Pro. But he never matched Andrews’ 93 catches from this season and exceeded his yardage total just once.
Gonzalez was the king of consistency, catching 93 passes as an All-Pro at age 24 and hitting the same total as an All-Pro at age 36. But with two decent games, Andrews could clear the Hall of Fame tight end’s peak totals of 102 receptions and 1,258 yards, both reached in 2004.
Winslow caught 89 passes for 1,290 yards in 1980, when such totals were unheard of for a tight end or almost anyone else.
So Ravens fans might not be witnessing the best tight end season in history, but Andrews is living in rarefied company.
He has already played 215 more snaps than he did last year and 355 more than he did in 2019, his first Pro Bowl season. With his buddy, Nick Boyle, recovering from a knee injury for most of this season, the Ravens needed him out there. If anything, Andrews has grown stronger late in the season, catching 27 passes on 34 targets for 376 yards over his last three games and dragging defenders with him on the way to first downs.
He did not do anything special to build up his durability going into this season.
“I do everything in the offseason by myself — I don’t go anywhere, but I have my family,” the Arizona resident said. “[We] go out to the fields and throw the ball, we have a JUGS machine; we do that all the time. So, I’ve got a great routine. I take a lot of pride in being disciplined. But there’s nothing else I did differently.”
In other words, he’s in it for the long haul, not a flash of brilliance. He believed he could be this good three years ago, when he slipped to the third round of the 2018 draft. Scouts loved his hands and said he ran routes like a wide receiver in an NBA power forward’s body. But they also said he had lost speed over his three seasons at Oklahoma and that he did not assert himself as a blocker.
Those criticisms still burn in Andrews’ gut. It’s an old story — the slighted prospect who uses rejection as fuel — but that doesn’t make it any less true.
“It fuels me to this day,” Andrews said. “I’ve been doubted a lot in my life — at almost everything — and so, it’s going out there and proving people wrong. But at the end of the day, I go out there and prove myself right. I know what I am, I know what I’m capable of, and I know what I bring to a team, and I’ve known that for a long time. So, all this is great, but I’m going to continue to be me and just play the way I play.”
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