Greg Roman loves tight ends. We knew this of the Ravens offensive coordinator going into the 2019 season, and the team’s performance bore it out.
Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst could hardly have been more essential to the Ravens’ 14-2 season. They doubled as forceful blockers in a record-smashing ground attack and as quarterback Lamar Jackson’s favorite targets in an efficient passing game. Add fullback Patrick Ricard, whom Ravens coach John Harbaugh often refers to as a fourth tight end, and you have a foundational unit for one of the best teams in the league.
2019 in review
Jackson showed his affinity for tight ends as soon as he became the Ravens’ starting quarterback midway through the 2018 season.
The team had already invested heavily in the position, using a first-round pick on Hurst and a third-round pick on Andrews in the same draft that brought Jackson to Baltimore. And the Ravens doubled down on that investment last offseason, signing Boyle to a three-year, $18-million contract extension and promoting Roman to offensive coordinator
Some observers were surprised Boyle earned such a lucrative deal after catching 75 passes combined in his first four seasons with the team. But the Ravens see the former fifth-round pick as one of their best all-around players, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound anvil who would do anything asked of him and never covet individual glory. Boyle has also become an older brother to Hurst and Andrews in a close-knit position group. The three are inseparable in the locker room and on the practice field, where they tease and tussle like oversized puppies.
Boyle proved he was worth every penny in 2019, playing 70% of the team’s offensive snaps, dominating as a blocker for the league’s best rushing offense and increasing his production as a receiver with a career-high 31 catches for 321 yards and his first two NFL touchdowns. Jubilant teammates swarmed Boyle after he scored his first touchdown against the New England Patriots, indicating how deeply he’s appreciated behind the scenes.
Andrews, meanwhile, blossomed into a star, making the Pro Bowl in his second season as he led the Ravens in targets, receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Pro Football Focus graded him the second best tight end in the league behind only George Kittle of the San Francisco 49ers. Andrews combines ideal size with reliable hands and a rare instinct for finding the soft spots in a defense. Jackson usually looks to him first on crucial downs. Nagging leg and ankle injuries were Andrews’ only downfall. He missed just one game but frequently played at less than 100% and was not at his best in the Ravens’ playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans. On a crucial early play in that game, a Jackson pass bounced off Andrews’ outstretched hands and into the arms of Tennessee safety Kevin Byard.
Hurst quietly improved on a disappointing rookie season, showing the best hands on the team late in the year. He caught 30 passes on 39 targets overall and flashed the athleticism that inspired the Ravens to pick him 25th overall in the 2018 draft. His 61-yard touchdown catch was the pivotal play in a Week 14 road victory over the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills. Hurst can’t match Boyle as a run blocker or Andrews as a third-down target but made a compelling case for more playing time.
Ricard, meanwhile, asserted himself as more than the NFL’s leading two-way player. Though he still played 140 snaps as a defensive tackle, Ricard made the Pro Bowl because of his pile driving blocks as a fullback. As Roman gleefully put it, he allowed the Ravens to “get medieval” on opposing defenses. Ricard will probably never rack up gaudy receiving or rushing statistics, but he did catch a career-high eight passes on 11 targets. The Ravens rewarded him with a two-year, $7.3-million contract extension late in the season.
Skinny: Boyle doesn’t bring the receiving flash of Andrews or Hurst, but he’s on the field more than either because of his exceptional blocking. He’s established himself as key figure in the team’s culture and will be counted on to fill a similar role in 2020.
Contract status: Boyle will make about $6.8 million in salary and bonuses in the second season of the three-year deal he signed.
Skinny: Many observers who watch the Ravens day to day predicted a breakout from Andrews, and he made good on every bit of that promise. He’s Jackson’s most trusted target and arguably the second most important playmaker on the team behind the league MVP.
Contract status: Andrews will make about $925,000 in salary and bonuses in the third season of the four-year deal he signed as a third-round pick out of Oklahoma.
Skinny: No team in the league will start 2020 with a more gifted No. 3 tight end than Hurst. He put a frustrating rookie season behind him and with his speed and sticky hands, could force his way into a more substantial role in Roman’s offense.
Contract status: Hurst will make about $3 million in the third season of the four-year deal he signed as a first-round pick out of South Carolina. Because he was a first-rounder, the Ravens will have the option to keep him for a fifth season in 2022.
Skinny: Ricard evolved from fun gimmick to Pro Bowl fullback in 2019, and the Ravens paid him accordingly. He’ll again be asked to “get medieval” on opposing defenders as the Ravens look for a repeat from Jackson and their running backs.
Contract status: Ricard will make about $4.6 million in salary and bonuses in the first season of the two-year extension he signed.
1. Can Andrews avoid injuries in 2020?
It’s not as if anyone can blame Andrews for taking punishment to his legs and ankles in 2019. He did his best to stay on the field despite frequent appearances on the Ravens’ weekly injury reports. He produced even when clearly beaten up.
But Andrews and the Ravens have to hope for better luck in 2020 as the third-year tight end tries to secure his spot among the NFL’s best. His 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame makes him an ideal option for Jackson on third down and in the red zone, but Andrews is also a sizable target for opposing defenders.
The Ravens already hold him to modest snap counts with their three-man rotation at tight end. But they must do everything possible to keep Andrews fresh for the postseason. As we saw against the Titans, their offense is diminished when he’s playing through injuries.
2. Can Hurst force his way into a more featured role?
Hurst played exactly as many offensive snaps as Andrews, so it’s not as if he wasn’t on the field. But Jackson targeted him just 39 times compared to 98 for Andrews.
Will that change in 2020? Hurst made a solid argument for himself last season with some exceptional catches in traffic, that transformative 61-yard touchdown in Buffalo and a productive performance in the loss to Tennessee.
He proved he’s no draft bust. But Hurst will turn 27 in August so there’s some urgency for him to take the next step. No matter how much he improves, his opportunities in Baltimore could remain limited because of his good friend, Andrews. That’s why trade rumors involving Hurst have bubbled up in recent weeks. He’s talented enough to produce big numbers in another city, but he also gives the Ravens superior depth at a featured position in their offense. They would likely ask for a significant return from any potential suitor.
3. Will the Ravens find more interesting ways to use Ricard?
He’s already one of the most unusual players in the NFL — a modern evocation of the league’s two-way past. And we know how much the Ravens relish using Ricard as a battering ram at the front of their offense.
But Harbaugh often refers to Ricard as a de facto tight end. Does that mean Jackson might look to him as a surprise receiver more often in 2020? Coaches have praised Ricard for quietly improving his pass catching, so it’s not out of the question. He has three touchdowns and five first-down conversions on 12 career catches.
There isn’t a more settled position group on the Ravens roster, unless general manager Eric DeCosta trades Hurst to improve the team’s depth in other areas. The Ravens have carried four tight ends in the past, but given the success of their trio last season, it’s hard to see them tweaking the formula. They kept Charles Scarff — like Boyle, a University of Delaware product — on their practice squad last season and could do so again in 2020. They’ll also invite a few developmental tight ends to training camp. But barring a significant injury or trade, they probably won’t go shopping at tight end or fullback.
NFL key dates
Through Monday: NFL scouting combine, Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis.
March 10: Before 4 p.m., deadline for clubs to designate franchise or transition players.
March 16-18: Clubs are permitted to contact, and enter into contract negotiations with, the certified agents of players who will become unrestricted free agents.
March 29-April 1: Annual league meeting, Palm Beach, Florida.
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April 23-25: NFL draft, Las Vegas.