When the Ravens and Jaguars were done with their intrasquad drills Monday afternoon, Lamar Jackson huddled with his offense, looked over Jacksonville’s defense and handed the ball off. Again and again and again.
At times late last season, it seemed as if the Ravens would not even need their wide receivers to move the ball, and in this particular training camp drill, they were omitted altogether. Before the joint practice’s main attraction got underway — 11-on-11 action, with everything but live tackling — the sideshow was a between-the-tackles running drill, the Ravens’ heavies against the Jaguars’ heavies. And Patrick Ricard was happy to provide a soundtrack.
He thudded against defensive end Yannick Ngakoue (Maryland). He cracked into linebackers James Onwualu and Myles Jack. Not every block made the same sound, but they all made the same impression: If there’s anyone on the team who can “get medieval” on a defense, as offensive coordinator Greg Roman hopes they will, it’s the 300-plus-pound Ricard.
The third-year player hears that directive all the time from Roman — in team meetings, at a news conference last week. Get medieval. For almost any NFL team building a “revolutionary” modern offense, a smash-mouth fullback might be last on the wish list. Run-first attacks are already inefficient enough; why add a thumper with four career catches, someone whose mere on-field presence suggests a run is imminent?
The Ravens are prepared to do things differently. Ricard will not spread out a defense like a slot receiver or a pass-catching running back; he’s probably going to try to flatten it.
“There’s an element of our offense where we want to be able to get medieval and get downhill on people,” Roman said early in camp. “There are a variety of ways to do it. We don’t want to narrow ourselves to say, ‘We’re only doing this,’ or, ‘We’re only doing that.’ Let’s roll the balls out there, see what the guys can do, and see who steps up and progresses. Pat’s doing a really good job.”
The position’s job market has seen better days. In 2012, 24 fullbacks played over 200 offensive snaps, according to Football Outsiders, and seven played over 400. Last season, just four fullbacks finished the year with over 200 snaps, and only one, former Ravens and current San Francisco 49ers standout Kyle Juszczyk, surpassed 400.
This is not a golden age for fullbacks. That doesn’t mean they can’t help an offense shine. Three of the NFL’s top four offenses last season — the New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints — all had room in their schemes for a fullback. James Develin played 42% of the Patriots’ offensive snaps in both their high-scoring AFC championship game and their grind-it-out Super Bowl victory.
“You could say it's a dying position, but there are still a majority of teams that still use fullbacks,” Ricard said Saturday. “And I think G-Ro loves them.”
That much is well documented. In Roman’s first stint as an NFL offensive coordinator, with the 49ers earlier this decade, he complemented San Francisco’s dynamic dual-threat quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, and hard-nosed running back, Frank Gore, with fullback Bruce Miller. In 2015, Roman’s lone full season in Buffalo, he used a traditional fullback, Jerome Felton, on over a quarter of the Bills’ offensive snaps and a versatile H-back, Charles Clay, over 70% of the time.
From what Ricard’s seen of Roman’s old offenses, he doesn’t expect the role of a lead blocker to change much this season. But the outlines of the Ravens’ revamped offense, and Ricard’s place in it, are still sketchy. He pointed out that he set a season high for offensive snaps last season once Jackson took over and the running game took off. Which made his omissions from the Ravens’ game-day rosters after Week 12 all the more curious.
“I can't control any of that,” Ricard said. “You could look at it as maybe it was just a numbers thing. We had a lot of tight ends last year. We had Maxx [Williams], two draft picks [Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews]. We had some guys who were more involved on special teams than I am. I can't control any of that.”
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Ricard feels he’s come a long way since then. The early-December night before he was inactive for a second straight game, racist and homophobic messages he sent years ago resurfaced on Twitter. Ricard addressed his teammates and promptly apologized for the posts, the worst of which dated to his high school days.
The episode bothered Ricard — “That’s not who I am at all,” he said Saturday — but he and the Ravens have moved on. He said said he’s “way better of a person” now. He hopes the same can be said of his receiving ability.
While Ricard appeared in six games last season as a defensive lineman, his roster chances this summer seem more contingent on his offensive value. When Ricard’s playing time faded last year, the offense didn’t change much. Tight end Nick Boyle doesn’t have Ricard’s heft, but he proved a capable H-back, clearing paths for Jackson at the line of scrimmage and catching passes when he got open.
With the Ravens’ desire for greater run-pass balance, Ricard knows he can’t be a tell in the team’s backfield, a sure-thing warning sign that Mark Ingram II or Gus Edwards or Jackson is running the ball. So he’s learned pass protections and studied receivers’ routes. He’s spent some time in the slot, normally a no man’s land for players his size.
The Ravens already know he can get medieval. Boyle said Ricard can “really stick people to blocks like I haven’t really seen before.” He praised his “nastiness.” Now, though, they’d like to see him be modern, too.
“A team came out last year and practiced against us, and they basically told their guys not to cover him, that they’ll never throw it to him, and then he caught a touchdown pass against them,” coach John Harbaugh recalled after practice Monday.
The crucial difference in 2019: “He caught one today, and they did cover him.”