In the summer before his Pro Bowl season, Ravens tight end Mark Andrews was running routes so expertly that a teammate stole one of his moves.
Now nearly two years later, early in the summer before a season that could make him a very wealthy man, Andrews looks even better.
“Really good. He’s practiced very well,” coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday, after the Ravens wrapped up their third open practice of organized team activities. “I told him today, I really feel like he’s running routes the best that I’ve seen him run routes since he’s been here. Very crisp and very sharp and explosive and all of it. I’m just happy he’s here.”
Here is Owings Mills, in muggy 90-degree weather, where the last thing a Ravens defender wants to see in passing drills — other than maybe a swarm of cicadas — is No. 89 lined up across from them. Andrews, entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, could’ve passed on the voluntary workouts, could’ve worked out safely back home in Arizona. Instead, he came to the Under Armour Performance Center to score touchdowns. A lot of them.
Andrews was nearly unstoppable in red-zone drills Tuesday. Quarterback Lamar Jackson found him on a corner route for a touchdown against starting safety DeShon Elliott. Andrews caught another in the back middle of the end zone, the defense apparently having forgotten to account for the Ravens’ most talented receiver. He had two straight grabs in a hurry-up drill near the end of practice before he was finally stopped — by cramps.
For three years now, Andrews has been the most reliable piece of a work-in-progress passing game, the centerpiece of Jackson’s between-the-numbers attack. His showing Tuesday was a reminder, if anyone needed one, that wherever the Ravens’ remade passing attack goes this season — up, down, into the limelight, under center — Andrews will probably be option No. 1.
“It’s just being able to improve each and every year, knowing the things that you’re good at and not good at, and trying to work those little things,” Andrews said of his approach. “But I’ve been running a ton. Obviously, routes are something that’s very important to me, being able to run really good routes. In the offseason, I made an emphasis of that. I feel like I’m getting in and out of breaks really well. I feel light. I feel fast. So I’m excited to see what I can do.”
Andrews didn’t want to make his 2021 goals public — “There are a bunch of things I can get better at” — but he joked to reporters in a news conference that “you guys know where it’s at.” Andrews, as much as anything, is defined by his “Top five” mantra. Whatever Andrews finds himself invested in, he wants to be considered among the best.
So far, so good. Since 1970, the start of the NFL’s modern era, only 16 tight ends besides Andrews have recorded 2,000 receiving yards over their first three seasons, according to Pro-Football-Reference, stars like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz and George Kittle, all of whom played in more pass-heavy offenses.
Even last year, a slog at times for the Ravens offense, was a step in the right direction for Andrews. During his breakout 2019 season, the former third-round pick had 64 catches for 852 yards (13.3 per reception) and 10 touchdowns in 15 games. As Andrews’ production dipped in 2020 (58 catches for 701 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games), he still made strides in his game.
His drop rate fell, from 7.1% to 5.7%, and his completion rate improved slightly. He also finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ No. 10 pass-blocking tight end and No. 17 run-blocking tight end, one of the few at the position to be rated so highly at both. With the Ravens’ investment in their outside passing game this offseason, Andrews could enter 2021 as the rare player who could be more dangerous the less he’s needed to produce.
“Just being out there with obviously Sammy [Watkins], Rashod [Bateman] and a couple of the other guys, the new young guys, those guys are balling out,” Andrews said. “The deep threat, the stretching the field, making plays, catching the ball — everyone is incredibly locked in. Just the whole energy around this program right now is awesome. Everyone is locked in. Everyone is moving on the same page and working toward the same goal. We’re trying to be the best team that we can be, and our pass game is looking really good, to be honest with you.”
With fullback Patrick Ricard (hip) and tight end Nick Boyle (knee) sidelined by injuries, Andrews has also stepped into an unfamiliar role: that of veteran leader. Eric Tomlinson is 29 and more experienced over his itinerant five-year NFL career, but it’s Andrews who’s emerged as the line leader in drills. Along with tight ends coach Bobby Engram, he’s the one shepherding the Ravens’ group of young tight ends, showering praise on relative unknowns like Eli Wolf.
The front office by now knows Andrews’ value to the team. The Ravens are a “tight end-centric offense,” general manager Eric DeCosta said in January, and Andrews is “one of the better tight ends in the entire NFL.”
“We would be foolish to not want to try and keep him,” DeCosta said then. “Hopefully, we can make progress and get some deals done.”
It won’t be cheap. If Andrews is paid like a top-five tight end, his annual contract value could approach $15 million. Travis Kelce’s four-year extension with the Kansas City Chiefs amounted to $57.3 million. Kittle’s five-year extension with the San Francisco 49ers, also signed last year, is worth $75 million.
With close friend and former teammate Orlando Brown Jr. traded to Kansas City, Andrews is now behind only Jackson on the Ravens’ list of homegrown players most likely to get a megadeal. He hopes he doesn’t have to move far to get one.
“I try not to worry about the things that are not in my control,” Andrews said. “I love Baltimore. I love being here. I love playing here. I want to be here for the rest of my life, man. This is home for me. So that’s where I’m at. I’m just going to, as a player, be the best player that I can be for this team. …
“We all are moving in the same direction, and that’s really all that I’m worried about right now. You can’t worry about too much of the outside noise and what happens with that. I’m just going to let my play speak for itself. Obviously, I love Baltimore. I love being here, and I would love to be here for my whole life.”