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Despite inexperience, Ravens excited about young group of tight ends

Despite inexperience, Ravens excited about young group of tight ends
Ravens tight end Crockett Gilmore, top, leaps over Redskins' Keenan Robinson, right, to dive into the end zone in the first quarter. The scoring play was nullified by a penalty in the Ravens' preseason loss to the Redskins at M&T Bank Stadium. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Crockett Gillmore has 12 career NFL catches and all of 15 regular-season games under his belt. But when it comes to his status in the Ravens' tight end room, he's treated by his peers like a 10-year veteran.

"To think that Crock has only one year is kind of crazy," Ravens tight end Nick Boyle said. "We look at him as the old guy in the group. We've really been learning a lot from him in meetings and on the field. Maxx [Williams] and I look up to him and he's shown us how to go."

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As he enters his second NFL season, Gillmore acknowledges that he has a lot to learn, but he has become the leader of the league's youngest tight end group out of necessity. When the Ravens open the regular season against the Denver Broncos on Sunday at Sports Authority Field, they can look to the opposite sideline for a reminder of the youth movement they've undergone at the tight end position.

Owen Daniels, who played for the Ravens last season, heads a Broncos tight end corps that carries 22 years of NFL experience. The Ravens' group consists of Gillmore and two rookies: Williams, a second-round draft pick, and Boyle, a fifth-rounder.

"How far back would you have to go to find a younger group of three tight ends in this league?" Ravens coach John Harbaugh asked Tuesday. "And yet, I'm really excited about them. I can't wait to see them play. I feel like they have what it takes. I feel like they're going to acquit themselves very well."

From Eric Green to Shannon Sharpe to Todd Heap to Dallas Clark to Daniels, a veteran pass-catching tight end has pretty much been a staple of the Ravens offense. But the team's most veteran tight end, Dennis Pitta, will start the season on the physically unable to perform list as he attempts a second comeback from a fractured and dislocated hip.

That has left Gillmore to fill that role after he was drafted in the third round in 2014 upon the Ravens receiving a strong recommendation from Gary Kubiak, then the team's offensive coordinator and now the Broncos coach. Gillmore was a former teammate of Kubiak's son, Klay, at Colorado State.

"I started as a freshman in high school. I started as a freshman in college. This is the same process really," said Gillmore, who had 10 receptions for 121 yards last regular season, two catches for 30 yards in the playoffs and scored both of his touchdowns against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. "I don't feel any different. You have to do your job. That's all we're doing — trying to do the best job that we can do."

If there is anybody that knows about the transition that Gillmore is trying to make this year, it is Heap, a first-round pick in 2001 who is regarded as the top tight end in Ravens history. As a rookie, Heap was an understudy to Sharpe, a future Hall of Famer. But after Sharpe was let go in the Ravens' roster purge following the 2001 season, Heap was elevated into the starting role.

In one year, his targets jumped from 23 to 122, his receptions from 16 to 68. Heap also had 836 yards receiving and six touchdowns in his sophomore season.

"Going into my second year, I felt like I was so much further ahead just because a year under your belt can do a lot in the NFL," Heap said in a recent phone interview. "If you prepared mentally and physically and you know how to do it the right way and you watch a guy do it, it helps. That was me coming into my second year. I had a little success in my first year and was expected to do certain things."

Heap, who remains close with Pitta and quarterback Joe Flacco, said he understands why the current team's inexperience at the position might be a concern.

"Coaches, scouts, everybody in the organization, they are going to have anxiety because it's the unknown," Heap said. "How are these guys going to react in certain situations? We'll learn a lot in these first few games. They also have to develop that trust with Joe as well, and the guys around them. Those are big question marks. We'll see if they are up to the challenge."

Sharpe, who said he has heard positive reviews of Gillmore, said in a recent phone interview that the Ravens tight ends can't use youth as an excuse.

"Look, the thing is you're not on scholarship now. This is not for room and board and books. You have to make a living," Sharpe said. "There is no more pampering. It's time to grow up. We don't have time for you to feel your way through it. You have to grow up right away because these games count. You're not going to a bowl game at 6-5 in the National Football League. You go upstairs every Monday and you pick up a check, so you need to earn it. This excuse about being a rookie, and he's going to have to find his way — no, we don't have time for you to find your way. We're trying to build something special."

To this point, Harbaugh said he has been pleased with the progress of his tight ends. Though Gillmore had a relatively quiet preseason with four receptions for 40 yards, he has been widely praised for improving his strength and quickness. Boyle was drafted largely for a blocking role, but he showed decent receiving skills all summer. Williams' preseason was marred by a series of injuries, but the former Minnesota standout flashed glimpses of what made him the draft's top-ranked tight end.

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New offensive coordinator Marc Trestman used multi-tight end sets a little less than the league average the past two seasons with the Chicago Bears, who have a Pro Bowl tight end in Martellus Bennett. However, the Ravens' three tight ends seemingly have complementary skill sets, so that should give him some options.

That, of course, will depend on how quickly Boyle and Williams pick things up. Gillmore acknowledged that he has to "over-communicate" with the two rookies, to make sure they understand certain things.

The Ravens' tight end room includes position coach Richard Angulo, who played in the NFL for six seasons, and Pitta, who has played five seasons in the NFL and currently serves as a de-facto assistant coach while rehabilitating his injury. So, there is plenty of experience for the young tight ends to lean on.

"I think we're really talented," Boyle said. "It's just a fact of learning and growing. We're all going to have mistakes - the whole team is going to have mistakes. We're going to learn from our mistake the first time. We learn from Crockett, we learn from Dennis. I think we'll be fine. We all started off pretty well and we'll just continue to grow."

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