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‘The savviest route runner I’ve ever seen’: Why Ravens TE Mark Andrews is worthy of imitation

#89 TE Mark Andrews during Ravens training camp.
#89 TE Mark Andrews during Ravens training camp. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Mark Andrews is such a good route runner, Charles Scarff stole from him. Sort of. It wasn’t like he took $20 out of a jacket pocket. It was more like … theft of intellectual property.

When the undrafted free agent joined the Ravens for training camp this summer, he knew he’d have to catch passes. To do that, Scarff would have to get open. The tight end was a third-team All-American last season for Football Championship Subdivision program Delaware, but he’d gone undrafted. There was a lot to learn, much to prove.

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Andrews had been a rookie tight end in Baltimore the year before. He also happens to be, in Scarff’s estimation, “the savviest route runner I’ve ever seen.” So savvy, in fact, that Scarff started to adopt Andrews’ releases at the line of scrimmage as his own. To great success, too. “It’s been getting me open and everything,” he said after practice Monday.

At a recent tight ends meeting, the truth came out. As film from practice rolled, Andrews noticed his handiwork. He spoke up. “He was like, ‘Quit stealing my releases,’ ” Scarff recalled, chuckling.

More than a week through training camp, it has been easier to mimic Andrews than stop him. He’s quickly achieved most-favored-receiver status with quarterback Lamar Jackson, and their partnership has risen like the morning sun over Owings Mills. It’s roasted just as many people, too.

As a 6-foot-4, 256-pound tight end, Andrews has seemingly reached that sweet spot: too fast for linebackers to cover, too big for cornerbacks to reroute, too skilled for safeties to handle. On a team that spent the first half of last season with an unsteady passing game and the second half committed to smashmouth football, he had the best-ever rookie year for a Raven at his position.

And that came after a forgettable training camp. This has been the opposite.

“I feel super comfortable, and confident, as well, just running routes, doing everything they’re asking me to do and putting my hand down when they ask me to,” Andrews said after a recent practice. “And just trying to be a complete tight end is what I’m working for. And you know, these first couple of days have been great. I’m just trying to lay the foundation and work from there and hopefully have a big year.”

When the Ravens were on the clock at No. 86 in last year’s draft, three other tight ends had already been taken before Andrews, reigning winner of the John Mackey Award, recognized as college football’s best tight end. The Ravens had taken the first, too, selecting South Carolina’s Hayden Hurst at No. 25 overall.

Draft stock momentum seemed to seep into training camp. While Hurst quickly established himself as a reliable target for then-starter Joe Flacco, Andrews looked like the limited prospect some critics had tagged him as: unexceptional athlete, poor blocker, not aggressive enough. Over his first three preseason games, he caught two passes for 7 yards.

One explanation: He also couldn’t catch his breath. Halfway through training camp practices last year, “I was dying,” Andrews recalled. That’s no longer a problem. Whether it’s the 13th or the 130th minute of practice, he still feels explosive.

“It's probably night and day for me,” he said. “I think, since last year to this year, it's really no comparison for how far I've come.”

That was clear by the end of last year. In setting the single-season franchise record for receiving yards by a rookie tight end, Andrews invited lofty comparisons. Former Ravens great Todd Heap, the second-most productive receiver in team history, averaged 549.2 receiving yards per season over his decade in Baltimore — a few yards shy of what Andrews posted in his debut (552).

He could be in even more esteemed company soon. According to ESPN, Andrews’ rookie-year average of 11.0 yards per target was the second best for a tight end since 2007. Better than Rob Gronkowski’s, better than Zach Ertz’s, better than everyone but O.J. Howard’s.

“Mark is a dog,” Jackson said at the end of mandatory minicamp in mid-June, after another dominant outing by Andrews. “He gets open, he runs his routes, he can block. Man, he’s an all-around tight end. ... I don’t even have words for him. I don’t know.”

Even with the Ravens’ versatility at tight end — cornerback Marlon Humphrey called Andrews, Hurst and Nick Boyle a “three-headed monster” — Andrews has resolved to make it as hard as possible to take him off the field. He worked with his brother in the offseason on his blocking, which coach John Harbaugh said he “didn’t do” at Oklahoma. “But he’s doing it here.”

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Andrews is finding new ways to get open, too. In one-on-one matchups Monday against Tony Jefferson, he got around the starting safety with a double move before high-pointing the ball for one catch, then next shed him with a quick tug before laying out for a diving grab.

Tight ends coach Bobby Engram said Thursday that the Ravens are “giving him some routes where he has a little bit of freedom,” but Scarff’s most impressed by the routes that should be dead on arrival. Say it’s an out-breaking route, he explained, and Andrews’ defender has outside leverage, intended to funnel him away from the sideline. Andrews can still sell an inside move, get the defender to bite just enough, then gain the outside position he needs to get open.

“He just has a good feel for everything,” Scarff said.

Now Jackson just has to keep finding Andrews. Everyone at training camp believes it’s an inevitability. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said their chemistry is “something you can’t manufacture,” and Andrews said Jackson is “probably the quarterback I’ve had the most chemistry with right away.”

As a reminder, he played three seasons with former Sooners teammate and current Cleveland Browns young gun Baker Mayfield.

“He’s a guy that he needs the trust in his guys, and I think that we’ve done a lot together," Andrews said of Jackson. “Coming in the same time, same year together, we’ve been through a lot together. And I just kind of feel what he’s thinking on the field, and you get that with quarterbacks. The more you play with him, the better you get.”

How good, exactly? A Pro Bowl invitation? Over 1,000 yards? Asked whether he had any personal goals for the season, Andrews nodded and smiled. But those, he said, he was keeping to himself.

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