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Ravens position review: Mark Andrews is the headliner at tight end, but Nick Boyle’s return is key

At his season-ending news conference last week, general manager Eric DeCosta called the Ravens a “tight end-centric offense.” Coordinator Greg Roman found that harder to accommodate amid a depleting 2020.

In March, the Ravens traded away former first-round pick Hayden Hurst, breaking up the NFL’s deepest tight end room. In November, Nick Boyle suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Mark Andrews tested positive for the coronavirus. But as the team stormed to its third straight postseason appearance, the offense got help at the position from faces old and new.

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In the third of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s tight end and fullback situation. Next up is wide receiver.

2020 in review

On offense, no position took a harder hit this past season than tight end. In 2019, Andrews, Hurst and Boyle combined to make 125 catches for 1,522 yards — only the Philadelphia Eagles had more — and 14 touchdowns. In 2020, Andrews, Boyle and midseason addition Luke Willson had 73 catches for 826 yards and nine touchdowns. Fullback Patrick Ricard added nine grabs for 45 yards and a score.

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Because of injuries and infections, the Ravens ended up using five tight ends: Andrews (14 games), Boyle (nine), Eric Tomlinson (six), Willson (three) and Sean Culkin (one). Ricard, who missed one game after testing positive for COVID-19, had a flexible role in the offense, sometimes lining up in the backfield with quarterback Lamar Jackson, other times lining up as an in-line tight end.

Depth chart

Mark Andrews

Skinny: Andrews’ improvements as a blocker were obvious, and after a solid 58-catch, 701-yard season, he has the second-most receiving yards in franchise history over his first three years, behind only wide receiver Torrey Smith. Andrews still needs a breakout performance in the postseason, where he’s averaged just 34.8 yards per game.

Contract status: Andrews is entering the final year of his four-year rookie contract. He has a $1.1 million salary cap hit next season, but he’s eligible for a contract extension this offseason.

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Patrick Ricard

Skinny: Ricard made the Pro Bowl for the second straight season after another year of pancake blocks and lane-widening hits. His role grew as the Ravens ran over defenses in their final four regular-season games, playing over half of the offensive snaps in each, and he showed his development as a receiver in the wild-card-round win over the Tennessee Titans.

Contract status: Ricard has a cap hit of $4 million in 2021, the final year of his two-year, $7.3 million contract extension.

Nick Boyle

Skinny: With his run-blocking prowess, Boyle again led Ravens tight ends in snaps through Week 8, and he finished the season with 14 catches on 17 targets for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Coach John Harbaugh has said he expects Boyle to return from his knee injury by the start of the 2021 season.

Contract status: Until he signed a two-year, $13 million contract extension Friday, Boyle was set to enter the final year of a three-year, $18 million extension he signed before the 2019 season. He’s now signed through 2023.

Eric Tomlinson

Skinny: The Ravens signed Tomlinson to their active roster in late December, after he appeared in four games as a practice squad call-up. A midseason acquisition, Tomlinson was primarily used as a blocker; he wasn’t targeted once as a receiver in his six games with the Ravens.

Contract status: Tomlinson, 28, is a pending unrestricted free agent.

Offseason questions

1. How healthy will the Ravens be by the season opener?

Boyle’s contract extension was a good sign that the Ravens feel he’ll be ready by next season. But knee injuries are never easy to rehabilitate — Harbaugh called Boyle’s “pretty serious” — especially with less than a year to get back into game shape.

Just ask Jacob Breeland, an undrafted rookie who sat out his first year in Baltimore on the reserve/nonfootball injury list after tearing his ACL at Oregon in October 2019. Ducks special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Bobby Williams told The Baltimore Sun in May that, if healthy, Breeland “would’ve been one of the top tight ends that went in the [2020] draft.”

Eli Wolf, who signed a reserve/future deal with the Ravens, also had his rookie season disrupted by injuries. A healthy offseason could be pivotal for his development.

2. How valuable is Mark Andrews?

DeCosta last week called Andrews “one of the better tight ends in the entire NFL” and a Pro Bowl-level talent. He said the Ravens would be “foolish to not want to try and keep him.” Like the other standouts in the Ravens’ 2018 draft class, Andrews is eligible for a big-money extension this offseason.

But just how good has he been? Since 1970, the start of the NFL’s modern era, only 16 other tight ends have recorded 2,000 receiving yards over their first three seasons, according to Pro-Football-Reference. Andrews’ peers include Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Zach Ertz and George Kittle, all of whom played in more pass-heavy attacks.

Tight end salaries haven’t quite caught up to wide receiver salaries, but the position has never been more valuable. Last year, Travis Kelce signed a four-year, $57.3 million extension with the Kansas City Chiefs, while Kittle got a new five-year, $75 million deal from the San Francisco 49ers. Andrews isn’t yet in that All-Pro tier, but the Ravens have rarely had receivers as productive as him.

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3. What will a “tight end-centric offense” look like in 2021?

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For as long as Roman’s in charge of the offense, the Ravens won’t skimp on tight end involvement. During a record-breaking 2019, the offense used two or more tight ends on 41% of its plays, according to Sharp Football Stats, a share that doesn’t even account for Ricard’s usage.

Last season, though, the Ravens were most efficient in “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers). With lighter groupings, there seemed to be more open space for Jackson and running back J.K. Dobbins. The Ravens averaged 7 yards per carry in 11 personnel, though their 6.9 yards per pass attempt fell short of the league average.

Given Roman’s history and Boyle’s extension, it’s fair to expect the offense to return to heavier formations in 2021. Andrews’ productivity as a slot receiver gives the Ravens added flexibility there. But if the offense struggles early on, the Ravens might again find more success substituting speed for size.

Possible additions

With Tomlinson and Culkin set to become free agents, the Ravens will soon have four tight ends on their 90-man roster — Andrews, Boyle, Breeland and Wolf — plus Ricard at fullback. A big-name free-agent acquisition is unlikely.

Still, the Ravens could grab a tight end in the draft, though their need at wide receiver is greater. Virginia’s Tony Poljan and Mississippi’s Kenny Yeboah are Day 3 possibilities.

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