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One man’s trash is Eric DeCosta’s treasure: how Josh Oliver can help the Ravens get their mojo back

The former third-round pick can fill Hayden Hurst’s void

Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

In a shell-shocking blowout loss to the Tennessee Titans after securing the first No. 1 AFC playoff seed in franchise history, the Baltimore Ravens had to make some difficult decisions.

Seemingly, one of those was to trade former first-round pick Hayden Hurst to the Atlanta Falcons in exchange for their 2020 second-round pick, the 55th overall selection. The Ravens used that selection on running back J.K. Dobbins, who had the third highest EPA/carry in the NFL last season (min. 100 carries) according to Sports Info Solutions. That pick also gave the Ravens security to trade down from the 60th pick, five picks later, which netted them Justin Madubuike (71st overall) and Malik Harrison (98th overall) — two promising young defenders, in hindsight.

Trading Hurst worked from a logistical standpoint, considering the presence of Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, who both excelled more in respective aspects of the Ravens offense than Hurst. Hurst, a viable starting tight end, had grown frustrated by his lack of playing time. Ravens’ General Manager Eric DeCosta spoke about Hurst following the trade in an interview with “The Lounge” podcast:

“These guys that play the game, they want to play. I understand that. There was a feeling that if he had a chance to play with someone else that he’d welcome that. You weigh those decisions. It’s a business. We’ve got to do what’s best for the player sometimes, but it’s got to also be what’s best for the club. I made the decision based on conversations that I had with Hayden and with his agent that if a team was able to match what I would consider fair compensation for Hayden that we would consider trading him.”

Considering DeCosta turned the 60th pick and Hayden Hurst into J.K. Dobbins, Justin Madubuike and Malik Harrison, it’s safe to say the Ravens faired well considering a tough position. However, the loss of Hurst was compounded in the 2021 season following a season-ending knee injury to Nick Boyle.

Boyle’s injury appeared to substantially limit the ways that the Ravens could create personnel mismatches. The Ravens responded by using fullback Pat Ricard as a tight end more often, as well as bringing in free agent Eric Tomlinson mid-season. Neither player possessed the receiving prowess that Boyle did, while Boyle certainly isn’t as talented of a pass-catcher as Hurst. This caused a paradigm shift in Baltimore’s offensive strategy.

There seems to be a misconception on how often Greg Roman deployed three tight end personnel with Hurst, Boyle and Andrews all on the field together in 2019. While a substantial part of Baltimore’s offense, the Ravens only called 41 passes and 41 rushes in three tight end sets. Those 82 plays accounted for only 8.3% of Baltimore’s total plays in 2019.

However, Baltimore scored a franchise record 64 touchdowns in 2019. 16 of them came from three tight-end usage. Baltimore led the NFL in both passing and rushing touchdowns using three tight ends, throwing eight and running eight. Only one other team had more than three passing touchdowns from three-tight end sets, while only the Bills ran for at least six.

(Note from the writer: before I get into this, I will say that there’s a caveat that Patrick Ricard is charted as a RB, which is a bit wonky in the data, but not so much that it will misconstrue my findings)

Baltimore led the NFL from three tight end sets in a litany of metrics in 2019, according to Sports Info Solutions:

  • Rushing EPA: 8.41 (over six points higher than second place).
  • EPA/rush: 0.21 (second place was 0.14, only seven teams had positive EPA/rush).
  • Passing Points Earned: 16.93 (only two teams had over 10).
  • Passing Points Above Average: 12.31.
  • Passing EPA: 21.82 (second place was 11.53, third was 5.05).

In summary, the Ravens were the most efficient and effective team out of three tight end sets in 2019.

In 2020, the team that went from scoring the most touchdowns with three tight end sets went to dead last. They scored zero touchdowns from 13 or 23 personnel in 2020, a major shift, obviously. Being able to deploy Boyle, Hurst and Andrews who were all capable in the run game as well as viable receiving options created mismatches for opposing defenses.

Expanding further, two tight end personnel featuring Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst created frequent mismatches in the passing game, while both were still functional in the run game. Following Nick Boyle’s injury in 2020, those mismatches were gone. Without a wealth of talent in their receiving room, Baltimore had to rely more heavily on their run game, while defenses focused their attention on Mark Andrews by utilizing combo coverage to put multiple defenders in his vicinity.

In 2019, the Ravens threw 13 touchdowns (third in the NFL) from 12 and 22 personnel. They ranked as follows:

  • Second in passing points earned (44.9).
  • First in passing EPA (57.23).
  • First passing points above average (24.63).
  • First in rushing points earned (28.21).
  • Second in rushing EPA (7.78).
  • First in rushing points above average (20.7).

In 2020, the Ravens threw eight touchdowns from 12 and 22 personnel (11th in the NFL) and ranked as follows:

  • 14th in passing points earned (19.78).
  • 16th in passing EPA (8.29).
  • 12th in passing points above average (8.88).
  • 18th in rushing points earned (-0.15).
  • 4th in rushing EPA (-2.75).
  • 20th in rushing points above average (-6.09).

The Ravens, overall, were substantially less effective with in multiple tight end sets. While the loss of Marshal Yanda, a Hall of Fame caliber right guard, certainly doesn’t help . . . it’s hard to think that losing both Hurst and Boyle didn’t have catastrophic ramifications for a team that lacked talent on the perimeter.

Insert Josh Oliver —

Eric DeCosta sought to improve his guard play by adding Kevin Zeitler as well as drafting Ben Cleveland, while kicking Bradley Bozeman inside to center. This should allow for the Ravens to have a much more functional and strong interior offensive line, regardless of who starts at left guard between Cleveland and second-year OT/OG Tyre Phillips.

DeCosta also made the low-risk, high-reward trade of sending a conditional 7th round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars in exchange for third-year tight end Josh Oliver. Oliver, an athletically gifted pass-catching tight end from San Jose St., has spent nearly all of his time in Jacksonville on injured reserve. Now that he’s healthy, Baltimore might’ve found a player who can be both an insurance policy as well as a weapon in the passing game.

Oliver’s measurements and athletic testing have some very familiar comparisons — Hayden Hurst, Ed Dickson and Eric Ebron. All four measured between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5, 249 to 255 pounds, ran between 4.60 and 4.67s in the 40, while all jumped between 31.5 and 34-inches in the vertical jump. Oliver, who has 10.75-inch mitts, ranked in the 96th percentile in hand size of all combine attendees dating back to the combines beginning.

He’s displayed them throughout camp, making highlight-reel leaping catches over defenders up the seam. The third-year tight end has also shown quickness, speed, savvy and physicality after the catch.

If he’s able to produce 80% of the capability Hayden Hurst flashed during his days in Baltimore, the Ravens will be able to utilize more 12 and 13 personnel, enabling them to create mismatches with linebackers and safeties similarly to how they did in 2019. Oliver provides insurance in the event that Mark Andrews misses time, while also allowing for Nick Boyle to work his way back from injury with less snaps whenever he’s ready. The one area that is yet to be seen is how effective Oliver can be as a blocker. If he provides even slightly below-average ability there in the run game, he will still be usable, and therefore keep defenses guessing.

While Eric DeCosta hasn’t been perfect, sending a no-brainer draft pick to the Jaguars for an athletic tight end to replace Hurst’s role will allow Baltimore more personnel flexibility. The Ravens will be in a much better place than they were in 2019 offensively and capable of executing Greg Roman’s favorite part of his playbook at will.

Oliver may not be a world-changing player, but he can be a difference maker for the Ravens. Continuing to ramp up throughout the preseason, demonstrate his knowledge of the playbook and execute in the run game will be imperative to ensure that he can be trusted early in the regular season.

All metrics and statistics in this article were provided by Sports Info Solutions.