If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.
Ravens rookies began reporting Tuesday for COVID-19 testing and some veterans are scheduled to report for testing Thursday.
After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens’ full squad is scheduled to report to Owings Mills next Tuesday. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener.
The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s tight end and fullback situation is analyzed.
Mark Andrews: The 2018 third-round pick broke out in the 2019 season, becoming Lamar Jackson’s most-trusted target. Despite a nagging foot injury, Andrews led the team with 64 receptions, 852 yards and 10 touchdowns. Andrews was also voted to his first Pro Bowl. While questions loom regarding an opt-out clause for at-risk players amid the coronavirus pandemic, Andrews, who has Type 1 diabetes, indicated that he plans to play in 2020.
Nick Boyle: Boyle is entering the second year of a three-year, $18 million contract extension he signed in May 2019. Regarded as one of the best blocking tight ends in the NFL, Boyle appeared in 70% of offensive snaps, highest among the team’s tight ends. While Boyle is a fixture in the team’s running game, he also set career highs for receptions and receiving yards last season, including scoring the first two touchdowns of his career.
Patrick Ricard: Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Maine in 2017, Ricard made his way onto the team’s 53-man roster as a rare two-way player at fullback and defensive lineman. In 2019, Ricard logged over 100 snaps on offense, defense and special teams. His time on defense dwindled as the season progressed and his role as a key piece on offense magnified. The front office rewarded Ricard in December with a two-year extension through the 2021 season.
Charles Scharff: An undrafted free agent in 2019, Scharff spent the entire season on the practice squad. The Delaware product is one of multiple players who will compete for the team’s third tight end spot.
(Editor’s note: Tight end Jacob Breeland will not play this season after being placed on the reserve/nonfootball injury list. Fullback Bronson Rechsteiner was waived.)
Jacob Breeland: Breeland is one of two undrafted rookie tight ends the Ravens signed after April’s draft. A four-year player at Oregon, Breeland’s senior season was cut short after a knee injury. In five-plus games last season, he was one of the most-productive tight ends in college football, recording 26 catches for 405 yards and six touchdowns, which led all FBS tight ends.
Eli Wolf: Wolf is the second tight end the Ravens brought in as an undrafted free agent. He played three seasons at Tennessee before moving on to Georgia as a graduate transfer. Wolf had limited production in his college career, recording 13 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown in eight games last season.
Bronson Rechsteiner: Though listed as a running back on the team’s website, Rechsteiner lined up as a fullback for Kennesaw State’s run-heavy triple option offense. In his senior season last year, Rechsteiner carried the ball 112 times for a team-high 909 yards. Rechsteiner is also the son of former professional wrestler Rick Steiner.
What to watch
No position group was as cohesive as the tight end group last season. The affable trio of Andrews, Boyle and Hayden Hurst were inseparable in the team’s locker room and interchangeable on the field as part of offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s offense that featured a bevy of personnel groupings.
But the nature of the NFL split the group up back in March. The Ravens parted ways with Hurst, a 2018 first-round pick, trading him and a fourth-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for a second- and fifth-round pick. (The Ravens used the second-round pick to select Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins at No. 55 overall).
While Hurst struggled with a foot injury in his rookie season and didn’t provide the immediate impact the team had hoped for, he showed flashes of his reliable hands and speed, and accounted for as many offensive snaps (457) as Andrews, his 2018 draft mate. Tight ends are featured prominently in Roman’s offense — each tight end appeared in at least 40% of offensive snaps last season — and Hurst’s departure seemingly opens up a roster spot for one of the team’s young players.
“The opportunity looms, and it’s there for those guys. Eli, Breeland and Charles, they’re all going to have an opportunity,” Roman said in a June video conference call.
Last season, coach John Harbaugh was always quick to lump Ricard’s name in when talking about the team’s tight ends. With a revamped defensive line, Ricard could see even more of his snaps on defense moved to offense — potentially lining up more often as a tight end — where he’s established himself as a Pro Bowl fullback.
With the Ravens gearing for a restructured training camp that will likely result in a reduced amount of practice and game reps before the regular season, it’ll be up to Scharff, Breeland and Wolf to seize the moment and impress coaches.
The coaching staff has familiarity with Scharff, but the most intriguing option to take Hurst’s post may be one of the two undrafted free agents.
Oregon special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Bobby Williams praised Breeland as a savvy route runner who can find soft spots in zone coverage. Breeland also will have to prove he can contribute in the team’s running game. Williams expressed optimism Breeland can be a serviceable blocker, which almost serves as a prerequisite in Roman’s offense.
Breeland’s agency released predraft footage showing the 6-foot-6, 252-pound tight end running and cutting with a brace on his surgically repaired left knee.
Wolf is a more raw prospect — he didn’t play tight end until his freshman year in 2015 — but will have to show his athletic potential translates to the field. At 6 feet 4 and 238-pounds, he ran an unofficial 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his personal Pro Day and did 23 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press.
Hurst had modest production in 2019 (30 catches for 349 yards and two touchdowns) but Roman still incorporated him into the offense, along with Andrews and Boyle. According to Sharp Football Stats, 42% of the Ravens’ offensive personnel groupings featured two or more tight ends, showing a clear lane for someone to carve out a role, whether it be Scharff, Breeland or Wolf.
Andrews and Boyle are entrenched as the offense’s top receiving tight end and blocking tight end, respectively. In a likely third tight end role, blocking is just as important of a trait as catching, and the player who shows their adroitness at both the quickest will land on the 53-man roster.
The Ravens are one of few teams who still carry a traditional fullback on their roster and there’s no reason to believe that changes in 2020. With Ricard established as a top lead-blocker, Rechsteiner will likely use his time in training camp auditioning for a practice squad spot, whether it’s with the Ravens or another team.