The Baltimore Ravens’ passing attack, or lack thereof, has been a popular and polarizing topic since their season ended in disappointing fashion in the divisional round of the playoffs.
Many pundits and countless fans of the franchise believe that acquiring a ‘true No. 1’ wide receiver is the answer or at least the start of improving the Ravens passing offense that ranked dead last in passing attempts, yards and yards per game in 2020.
Ravens quarterback and reigning league MVP, Lamar Jackson, led the entire league in touchdown passes in 2019 with 36 despite playing in an offense that ranked 27th in passing yards and yards per game, and last in passing attempts.
While the lack of consistent pass protection was a significant contributing factor, as was the inconsistent play of Jackson and his targets at times, the subtraction of a specific target in a vital role for the offense proved to be detrimental as well.
The Ravens had a deadly trio of tight ends in 2019 with Mark Andrews as the starter, blocking specialist Nick Boyle, and a former first-round pick Hayden Hurst who still saw the field a lot even though he was third on the depth chart.
Offensive Coordinator Greg Roman’s schemes heavily utilize the tight end position in both the running and passing game. The presence of all three players during the 2019 season helped the offense become impossible to predict from play to play with their two and three tight end formations.
General Manager Eric DeCosta turned his surplus at the position into the second-round pick that was used to select sensational rookie running back J.K. Dobbins when he traded Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons before the draft.
The Ravens landed a great player at a position that was already one of strength and by the end of the season, Dobbins proved to be the best of the bunch. However, they made another position of strength not as deep and less dynamic.
Andrews and Boyle were the only two true tight ends on the roster. Two-time Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard assumed a larger role offense in the passing game where he helped offset some of the loss of Hurst but was nowhere near the explosive vertical or intermediate threat.
“Pat is kind of hybrid fullback-tight end, but he did a lot of tight end-type stuff for us this year, as well,” DeCosta said in his end of the season press conference.
The coaching staff had to make do with the players they had at their disposal. When Boyle went down in Week 10 with a season-ending knee injury, they had to reshuffle again which included more on Ricard’s plate and some contributions from a handful of free agents that were signed off the street.
“It was a different room, it was a different situation this year, and I think the coaches did an awesome job of using the personnel that we had to make us as successful as possible,” DeCosta said.
There are no clear-cut answer to solving the Ravens passing woes from last season because it was a multi-faceted issue that was caused by a number of contributing factors.
However, with an offense that they are committed to going forward, it would behoove DeCosta to prioritize adding another pass-catching tight end to effectively replace Hurst over another wide receiver to aid Jackson and the passing game. The Ravens proved to be at their and the league’s best when they can operate out of 12 and 13 personnel with three viable receiving threats who are true tight ends.
The Ravens like to give their inhouse options the first crack at seizing vacancies that open up on the roster. They have a pair of undrafted free agents on the roster that had their rookie seasons cut short by injuries in Jake Breeland and Eli Wolf. Both will be itching for the opportunity to prove themselves in year two.
While DeCosta said that both players could be possible answers and will have chances to compete to be the third and maybe fourth player on the depth chart, he also said that the team won’t hesitate to bring in more talent at the position if the opportunity presents itself in the coming months.
“We’ll look at personnel, we’ll look at free agency, we’ll look at the draft, and certainly we’re very much a tight end-centric offense,” DeCosta said. “So, if there is a tight end there available in the draft, if somebody else happens to fall to us in free agency, we would certainly look at that as a possibility. We know that Greg can take those tight ends and really go to the lab and find some ways to use these guys to make us more productive on offense.”
Here is a detailed breakdown of the three avenues they can explore to find a proper replacement for Hayden Hurst:
There several notable pass-catching tight ends slated to become unrestricted free agents in March. The top names on the list include Hunter Henry of the Los Angeles Chargers, Jonnu Smith of the Tennessee Titans, and Jared Cook of the New Orleans Saints.
While the Ravens are a ‘tight end centric’ offense, the three aforementioned players have all been starters when healthy during their career and might not be willing to accept a lesser role by coming to Baltimore to be No. 3 on the depth chart after being No. 1 on their current teams.
Two less-heralded pending free agents at the position that are both underrated pass catchers and accustomed to lesser or limited roles are Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Rams and Tyler Kroft of the Buffalo Bills.
Of the two, Everett would be the ideal replacement for Hurst in the Ravens offense and could be had at an affordable price. He played a similar role for the Rams where he excelled as a blocker that lined up on the end of the line as well as in the backfield, and saw his role as a pass-catcher grow each year.
He’s a gifted athlete that can slip out of the backfield or fire off the line of scrimmage to get open at the intermediate level and stretch opposing defenses down the seam vertically when given the opportunity.
Everett might want to see if he can find a place where he can be a No. 1 after being somewhat underutilized with the Rams. But if he receives a sizable enough offer from the Ravens, they’ll address a pressing need before the draft.
The Ravens are the kings of acquiring compensatory picks and with several impending free agents set to hit the open market, they’ll be poised to accrue another haul next year. Trading for another pass-catching tight end instead of signing one in free agency would protect at least one of those future comp picks.
Three players that could be available via trade are Zach Ertz of the Philadelphia Eagles, Kyle Rudolph of the Minnesota Vikings, and Cameron Brate of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Both Ertz and Rudolph are former multi-time Pro Bowlers who could be on the move this offseason, whether it is via trade or as a salary cap casualty. They carry high cap numbers and their respective teams have younger player at the position expected to assume larger roles next season—Dallas Goedert in Philly and Irv Smith in Minnesota.
Brate’s contract features affordable cap hits and base salaries through the 2023 season. If the Ravens were to trade for either Rudolph or Ertz, it would likely be contingent on them signing an extension to spread their cap hits over one to two more years, like they did when they acquired five-time Pro Bowl defensive end, Calais Campbell, from the Jacksonville Jaguars on the eve of free agency last offseason.
In a perfect world, Florida’s Kyle Pitts, who is the consensus top tight end in this year’s class, would fall into the Ravens’ lap at 27, or close enough that they could trade up for him without forgoing too much draft capital.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world and top-10 talents rarely make it to the backend of the first round. If DeCosta still wants to take a player at the position early in the draft, Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Miami’s Jordan Brevin, or Boston College’s Hunter Long could probably be had on day two in either the second or third round.
Even if the team decides to address the position in free agency or through a trade, that still doesn’t prohibit picking up another tight end in the mid to late rounds. Two players that could likely be had on day three are Kenny Yeboah of Ole Miss and Quintin Morris of Bowling Green.
Both players attended, participated, and showcased their pass catching ability at the Reese’s Senior Bowl this past weekend.
Yeboah made an incredibly acrobatic catch just short of the end zone that showed off the seam-stretching threat he can be in the red zone.
Morris made several plays at the intermediate level by catching three passes for 52 yards, averaging 17.3 yards per reception, and picking up extra yards after the catch in the process.
The Ravens have a rich history of drafting and finding day three gems from the senior all-star game at almost every position. Both Yeboah and Morris are projected to come off the board between the fourth and seventh-rounds and could fill a need at a valuable position on the roster.