As the Ravens entered the offseason, one of the few strengths of a 5-11 team appeared to be its depth at tight end.
Even with the serious doubts surrounding Dennis Pitta’s future in Baltimore, the position consisted of 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore and 2015 draft picks Maxx Williams (second round) and Nick Boyle (fifth round). The trio combined to make 83 receptions for 833 yards and five touchdowns, making one assume that tight end was one of the few spots on either side of the ball that general manager Ozzie Newsome didn’t need to touch.
Then came last month’s news of Boyle being suspended for the first 10 games of the 2016 season for a second violation of the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances. The following week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh revealed that Gillmore — who finished the 2015 season on injured reserve with a back injury — needed surgery for torn labrums in each of his shoulders.
Newsome said Gillmore would “hopefully” be ready for the start of training camp in late July, but the executive’s moves at the start of free agency make you wonder if concerns are even greater than he and Harbaugh indicated late last month.
The signing of veteran tight end Benjamin Watson to a two-year, $7 million contract was surprising because of the Ravens’ typical patience at the start of free agency, but it still made sense with Boyle gone until late November and the offense’s heavy reliance on tight ends. Even at age 35, Watson caught a career-high 74 passes for 825 yards and six touchdowns with New Orleans last season and brings strong character and leadership to a position with very young talent.
But Newsome followed that acquisition with the surprising tender of restricted free agent Chase Ford, who didn’t play a snap for the Ravens last year and was sent to IR shortly after being signed in mid-November. The 6-foot-6, 265-pound Ford caught a combined 34 passes for Minnesota in 2013 and 2014, but the $1.671 million low tender is steep for a player who didn’t play a snap last year and was on the Vikings practice squad before Baltimore signed him.
To be clear, the right-of-first-refusal tender isn’t guaranteed, but that amount currently counts toward the salary cap and it’s no secret that the Ravens don’t have an abundance of room to maneuver. Perhaps the organization thinks Ford is a diamond in the rough, but it’s more likely a reflection of the uneasiness about Gillmore’s status for the start of the season.
The Ravens are already facing the brutal reality of Pitta retiring or releasing him with either outcome leaving a total of $6.6 million in dead cap space that will likely be split over the next two seasons with a post-June 1 designation. But Boyle’s foolishness and Gillmore’s health concerns transformed one of the roster’s deepest positions into a concern on which Newsome felt compelled to act.
These may have been the right moves under the current circumstances, but a $32 million contract to Pitta and three draft picks had already been devoted to the position over the last two years before Watson and Ford were added to the picture over the last couple days, exhausting more resources at tight end.
And that’s a disappointing development when the Ravens have an assortment of needs on both sides of the ball and only so much cap space and so many draft picks to go around.