The Ravens went to great lengths this offseason to make sure this didn't happen. They signed Benjamin Watson, a veteran known for his durability. They re-worked Dennis Pitta's contract to give him another shot at a comeback. They kept Nick Boyle around despite a second NFL suspension, and they converted Darren Waller and Daniel Brown from wide receiver to tight end.
They still had Crockett Gillmore and Maxx Williams, two players the organization believed were ascending.
The Ravens had depth questions at plenty of other positions, but they were covered at tight end, or so everyone thought. Ten games into the season, the only constant at the position has been Pitta, who was viewed this offseason as a long shot to play in another NFL game.
Injuries, ineffectiveness and suspensions have forced the Ravens to shuffle tight ends on and off the practice squad on a near weekly basis and use reserve offensive tackle James Hurst as an occassional blocking tight end in games. That no tight end has developed as a consistent down-field threat has hurt the Ravens in the red zone and on third downs, two areas where the offense has struggled all season.
"It has not been ideal," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "We had a number of tight ends to start the season, and we ended up being thin there the last four or five games. We just play the guys we have and go win games with the guys we have."
As they prepared for Sunday's key AFC North matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-6-1), the Ravens finally got some good news at tight end. Crockett Gillmore, who has missed three consecutive games with a thigh injury, returned to practice Wednesday. After serving a 10-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs, Nick Boyle returned to practice for the first time since late in the preseason.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco joked Boyle was so excited to be back that he showed up at the team facility at 3 a.m. Monday. Boyle is eligible to play Sunday, a welcome addition for the Ravens who have fought the past couple of weeks to get any semblance of blocking from the tight end position. Boyle, a fifth-round pick in 2015, had 18 catches for 153 yards as a rookie, but his best asset is his physicality.
If the Ravens deem Boyle and Gillmore ready to play Sunday against the Bengals, they'll be closer to whole again at the position.
"I think it just gives us a little more versatility to have those guys back [and] the ability to give Dennis a break here and there and just add to the mix," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "I think they are good players, so when you can get them back on the field, it is nice."
Whether it was Todd Heap, Ed Dickson, Owen Daniels, Pitta or even Gillmore (he had 33 catches for 412 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games last year), Flacco has always made good use of his tight ends.
According to Pro Football Focus, Flacco has targeted tight ends 87 times this season (fourth most in the league) and he's completed 61 passes to tight ends (seventh most). However, the Ravens haven't gotten enough big-play production out of those targets and receptions.
Pitta leads the team with 49 receptions, but he's averaging just 8.3 yards per catch and he's yet to find the end zone. Ravens tight ends have 507 receiving yards and two touchdowns, ranking 18th and 20th, respectively, in those categories, according to Pro Football Focus.
"Any time there's a bunch of moving parts, it's always kind of hard to ensure consistency," said Waller who has four catches for 31 yards and a touchdown in six games since returning from a three-game suspension. "Having those guys back out there is kind of like getting back to where we were in training camp. Everybody was making plays, everybody was clicking. Guys were on the same page and helping each other out. We're a group that can be relied on heavily. We're working to get back to that point."
For three consecutive weeks with Gillmore sidelined, the Ravens were forced to add a tight end to their practice squad just so they would have three players at the position to get them through the practice week. In games, being shorthanded has resulted in needing to rely on Pitta to block, when that's clearly not his strong suit, or bringing in Hurst as an extra tight end.
"I think when we started the year and back in [organized team activities], we had nine or 10 guys — a lot of depth, a lot of good players at the position," Pitta said. "We obviously knew that would be whittled down by the season. We've had the injury bug a little bit in our room and that's caused a little bit of turnover. Some guys have been in and out of suspension, so it's been kind of a revolving door for the tight end position. You just make the best of it and I think this group, hopefully, can start to contribute from this point forward."
The issues the Ravens have had at tight end this year have been disappointing, given just how much the organization has invested in the position. Pitta, one of the offensive stars in the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII run, signed a five-year, $32.5 million deal in February 2014. He played in just seven games combined over the next two years because of a twice-fractured and dislocated hip. That he's been able to stay healthy this season has been a huge development for the Ravens.
Watson signed a two-year, $7 million deal this March after he caught 74 passes and six touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints last year. After missing just 14 games over his previous 11 NFL seasons, Watson was lost for the year because of an Achilles' injury suffered this preseason.
The Ravens used a third-round pick on Gillmore in 2014 and second- and fifth-round selections on Williams and Boyle in 2015. Gillmore has missed nine games while dealing with myriad injuries over the past two seasons. Williams missed two games with injuries during a relatively quiet rookie season and he played in just four games this year before he went to injured reserve with a knee injury that required surgery. Boyle has already been suspended twice and is one more violation away from being banned by the league for at least two years.
Boyle, though, said Wednesday he felt "reborn" being back with the team.
"All you can really do is come in and compete, play your game, play as best as you can and all the other stuff works itself out," he said. "It's a great group of tight ends. I love everyone in the room. Unfortunately, we've had injuries, but … like all the other tight ends said, we have a really good room and one of the best in the league."
The Ravens have yet to see that manifest on the field, but they're hoping that Wednesday, with both Gillmore and Boyle back on the field, was the start of something positive.
"We feel like we have our full arsenal of tight ends coming back," Pitta said. "Hopefully, we can do something with that."