Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series examining the Ravens’ class of undrafted rookies. See the first part here.
The Ravens, maybe more than any NFL team, know the value of undrafted free agents. Justin Tucker was undrafted. So was Bart Scott. And Anthony Levine Sr. and Matt Skura and Patrick Ricard, among many others. For the past 16 years, at least one undrafted rookie has made the team’s initial 53-man roster, the league’s second-longest streak.
This offseason, the Ravens made space for a big class. Even after taking 10 players in last month’s draft, general manager Eric DeCosta filled out his roster with another 21 undrafted free agents. The team’s roster is considered one of the league’s strongest, with Pro Bowl players returning on offense, defense and special teams, but there might be space for another new name.
Who could be this year’s Patrick Mekari? The Baltimore Sun reached out to college coaches for insights on some of the offense’s higher-profile undrafted rookies.
Quarterback Tyler Huntley
Huntley might be at least a year away from challenging for a backup job in Baltimore. But Utah’s coaching staff thought so highly of his dual-threat ability — not to mention the Ravens offense he now finds himself immersed in — that before the Utes’ Alamo Bowl game in December, they borrowed a little from Greg Roman’s playbook.
“You would see a couple pistol plays run — not so much the run plays, but the play-action — that we just said, 'Hey, this would be a nice change of pace for us. It's something the opponent hasn't seen, and it fits Tyler's skill set to a T,' ” Utah offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Andy Ludwig said. “So I get great appreciation for what [the Ravens] are doing on offense.”
When the Ravens signed Huntley, he was heralded as the quarterback who once knocked off NFL Most Valuable Player Lamar Jackson in high school. But in Salt Lake City, he was a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference performer who finished second in the Football Bowl Subdivision in completion percentage (.731) despite having to learn his third offensive scheme in four seasons.
Huntley’s senior season was his most impressive at Utah. More importantly, it was also his healthiest. After missing three games in 2017 with a right shoulder injury and five more in 2018 because of a broken collarbone, Huntley started all 14 games last year for the Utes.
He rushed for just 290 yards on 104 attempts last season, his fewest as a full-time starter. (In college, sacks count against rushing stats, which explains his low rushing average.) That drop-off was intentional; Ludwig said that after he was hired at Utah in January 2019, he wanted to limit designed quarterback runs, to better protect Huntley.
But his athleticism — the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Huntley ran an unofficial 4.56-second 40-yard dash at his personal Pro Day — was never more obvious than when he needed to get out of trouble.
“The biggest thing that I saw was, he was an eraser for us offensively,” Ludwig said. “I appreciated it through the course of the season, but after the season, you go back and watch the [film] cut-ups. His ability to extend plays and then either reset in the pocket after moving or throw the ball on the run was a complete game-changer for us offensively.”
Running a mix of what Ludwig called pro-style schemes, Huntley spent more time under center than he had in previous seasons. He impressed Ludwig not only with how quickly he mastered the mechanics but also his command of the offense at the line of scrimmage.
Huntley’s “eyeballs were burning out of his skull,” Ludwig joked, when he learned his responsibilities in the new system. But over their year together, Huntley grew more and more comfortable changing run plays and flipping protections.
“It's difficult in the first year,” Ludwig said. “Usually, it grows as you're working together for a couple of years. The things really start falling into place. But because of his football background, he's been exposed to a lot of different styles of plays. He did, I thought, an excellent job in a very short period of time mastering the extra responsibilities that we were putting on the quarterback at the line of scrimmage.”
Concerns about Huntley’s processing ability, along with his injury history, contributed to his slide out of the draft, and Ludwig acknowledged that the “level of sophistication is going to kick way up for him.” He’s urged Huntley to learn what he can from Ravens coaches and veterans.
But Baltimore, he said, is an ideal landing spot.
“The only thing that I know is that Tyler Huntley’s going to do everything possible to make the most out of that existing situation,” Ludwig said. “I know he’s worked hard and has prepared for this opportunity and is going to make the absolute most of it.”
Tight end Jacob Breeland
Before the mid-October injury that ended his senior season, Breeland was maybe college football’s top tight end. Over Oregon’s first five-plus games, he had 26 catches for 405 yards. His six receiving touchdowns led all FBS tight ends.
“You know, he was really on track to have an outstanding season,” Ducks special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Bobby Williams said.
Then Breeland tore the ACL and meniscus in his left knee on a first-quarter catch against Colorado, and his draft stock plummeted. If healthy, Williams said he would’ve been one of the top tight ends in the draft class. (Cleveland Browns rookie Harrison Bryant, awarded the Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end last year, was a fourth-round pick and had similar production over his first six games for Florida Atlantic.)
The Ducks managed to overcome Breeland’s injury, winning the Pac-12 and then the Rose Bowl. But Williams let himself wonder how quarterback Justin Herbert and the offense would’ve looked had Breeland been available. “Who knows what we could’ve done?” he asked.
After three solid years at Oregon, Breeland had finally emerged as a weapon in its spread offense. Ducks coaches often exploited his size on the perimeter, sending him after smaller defenders on quick-hitting screens, only to have him feign a block and accelerate into an open pocket down the sideline.
At 6-6, Breeland was a problem for red-zone defenses, too. He won easily on back-shoulder throws and jump balls. When defenses tried to take away the middle of the field, he could separate from cornerbacks on out-breaking routes.
“Jacob was very, very flexible as far as all the different things that we were able to do with him,” Williams said. “We did some in-line blocking. We did some perimeter stuff out there with him in the slot. That allowed him to really, really free up the passing game a little bit, because he was a threat not only as a pass receiver but as a blocker.”
Williams said last month that, because of the coronavirus pandemic, he hadn’t seen Breeland recently but that he was “progressing pretty well.” Predraft footage from his agency showed Breeland planting and cutting smoothly on his surgically repaired left knee.
While his injury might have exacerbated concerns about Breeland’s run blocking, Williams was more optimistic. Breeland’s not a “dominating” blocker for the position, Williams acknowledged, but at full strength, he should be athletic enough to hold the point of attack in one-on-one battles, even as an in-line blocker.
“He'll be able to do some things that will help that offense,” he said.
Breeland’s most important test might actually come as a receiver. Before Williams joined Oregon’s staff in 2018, he coached for nearly a decade at Alabama, where he watched cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Anthony Averett develop into Ravens draft picks. In the NFL, windows in zone coverage close much faster than they do in college. But Williams knows that man-to-man coverage for receivers like Breeland can be especially challenging.
“He’s going to probably see more man coverage at the next level than he saw in college,” Williams said. “We saw some, but he’s really, really savvy versus the zone concepts that teams get. But it’s being able to beat man coverage and work on those things, because now his matchups will be a little bit more [difficult], going up against some pretty good guys.”
Tight end Eli Wolf
The most memorable catch of Wolf’s brief Georgia career will probably be his game-clinching, third-down catch at No. 6 Florida. But the most impressive one? That happened in the Bulldogs’ regular-season finale.
In the third quarter of an eventual blowout win at Georgia Tech, Wolf ran a whip route from the slot, starting with a quick inside move before pivoting back toward the sideline. He uncovered from the defensive back marking him easily, caught quarterback Jake Fromm’s pass in stride and turned upfield. After sidestepping a safety’s diving tackle attempt, he made a beeline for the end zone.
Forty-seven yards later, Wolf had a career-long catch — but no touchdown.
“First thing I did when he came to the sideline was, I got him on the phone and I said, 'Dude, you didn't score?! What the hell is your problem, man?! You get an opportunity [that good], man, you'd better put that thing in the end zone,' ” Georgia tight ends coach Todd Hartley recalled with a chuckle. “Kind of ribbed him a little bit, because he has the ability to do that.”
Wolf enters the NFL with an unusual profile. After four mostly anonymous seasons at Tennessee, he moved on last year to Athens as a graduate transfer, where he more than doubled his career receiving yardage. Still, that amounted to only modest production: 13 catches for 194 yards and a touchdown.
With a limited resume as a receiver and an evolving reputation as a blocker, Wolf is still growing into the position. He didn’t play tight end until 2015, his freshman year with the Volunteers. But his athletic potential is self-evident: At his personal Pro Day, Wolf ran an unofficial 4.43-second 40-yard dash and did 23 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press at 6-4, 245 pounds.
“When he catches the ball, he has run-after-catch ability, whether it's making somebody miss or it's dipping his shoulder and kind of running through somebody,” Hartley said. “He does that. He has that area of his game, so you know if you just get it to him, he'll have a chance to turn a first down into an explosive play or even a touchdown just because he has that ability.”
Wolf lined up in the slot, as an in-line tight end and in the backfield for the Bulldogs. “To do that,” Hartley said, “you’ve got to have some intelligence.” Each position had its own set of responsibilities, and there wasn’t much time to learn it all. Wolf started the year most comfortable as a slot receiver. But by the season’s end, Hartley was confident in Wolf’s execution in every phase of the game.
He made his greatest strides as a blocker. “Night and day,” Hartley said of his improvements since preseason camp. In their Sugar Bowl win over Baylor, Wolf “was just dominating people at the line of scrimmage.” And he did so at a playing weight of 230 to 235 pounds.
Hartley said Wolf will have to continue to add strength and become “more violent” at the line of scrimmage. But he called him a natural pass catcher and route runner, and said his skill set meshes well with the Ravens’ offense.
Georgia, after all, was a run-first attack, too. And when Wolf arrived last year, Hartley said he “wanted to be challenged to become a better tight end. He didn’t want to be labeled as a receiver or whatnot, because he knew that to have a chance with [an NFL team], he needed to have that complete game as a tight end. And so he really took on the challenge of the blocking aspect of his game from the get-go.”
Center Trystan Colon-Castillo
Brad Davis coached for only two seasons at Missouri, but in Colon-Castillo, he helped nurture a kindred spirit.
“I thought that he was able to see the game the way that I did,” said Davis, now the offensive line coach at Arkansas.
The 6-3, 313-pound Colon-Castillo grew into the role. He started 38 straight games at center for the Tigers before declaring early for the draft after last season. In Davis’ almost two decades of coaching, he said he’d never trusted a center or given one “as much free rein” as he did Colon-Castillo last year.
“And he, for the most part, was nearly spot-on,” he said.
What Colon-Castillo lacks in contact balance and length — his 30½-inch arms rank in the first percentile among offensive line prospects — he made up for with intelligence and commitment in college. Davis said that after Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, Colon-Castillo was “easily the second-most knowledgeable guy on the field.”
Driven by a desire to understand the sport’s component parts, he attacked each week’s game plan as if he were a coach. Colon-Castillo grasped defensive structures and fronts. He could make sense of secondary alignments and figure out pressure packages. He had the green light to change the offensive line’s presnap protection.
“He was a field general,” Davis said. “I don't have any other way to describe it. We asked him to do an awful lot.”
Colon-Castillo’s mere on-field presence inspired confidence among Tigers teammates, Davis said, and he was desperate not to miss any time there. That meant fighting through pain. He had an ankle and hamstring injury through the season and “never complained,” Davis said. Nor did he miss any significant time at practice.
Even at the scouting combine, Colon-Castillo, a former Lifter of the Year for Missouri, gritted his way through a pectoral strain to do 11 reps on the bench press.
“I've been around other players who would've taken more time off or would have found a way to say, 'Hey, my body's not ready. I'm not 100%,' ” Davis said. “He was so passionate about the game, man, that he would find a way to be out there [during the season]. So that says a lot about his toughness and who he is as a person.”
Davis recalled a conversation he had with a disappointed Colon-Castillo as the coronavirus pandemic shuttered much of his remaining predraft schedule. “It’s going to be another one of those parts of your journey that you’re able to talk about and another opportunity for you to overcome some more adversity,” he told Colon-Castillo, whose father died in a car accident when he was young.
As Colon-Castillo looks for an NFL home in Baltimore, Davis said being a good player won’t be enough. He needs “some dominating performances.” There are athletic deficiencies, but Davis said Colon-Castillo’s working to address them. He’s already looking for his next edge.
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“Eventually, he’ll earn a role, and I think that he’ll become, really, a staple for some organization somewhere down the line,” Davis said. “I think the biggest piece of it is that he just needs more time. He needs more development. He’ll continue to grow and strengthen his body. I think that he’ll find ways to overcome some of those physical limitations. I think he will. But I don’t think there’s anybody who was more equipped to overcome those things than him, because he’ll work at it every day.”