The Ravens have prepared for this reality for a few years now.
Long before Dennis Pitta surprised us all by returning to the football field to lead all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions in 2016, general manager Ozzie Newsome had taken significant steps to replace him. And with the veteran sadly suffering a third dislocation of his right hip in a four-year period last week — prompting his release on Wednesday — the time is now for the Ravens to find out about their extensive inventory of tight ends.
To call it depth would be presumptuous since all five carry enough baggage to make it difficult to handicap a favorite for the top of the depth chart going into the start of training camp next month.
Benjamin Watson has caught four times as many passes in his career as Baltimore’s four other tight ends combined, but the 36-year-old is coming off a torn Achilles tendon and won’t be fully cleared to return to action until later this summer. His leadership and experience will be valued in meeting rooms and on the practice field in training camp, but whether he has anything left in the tank is a critical question for a veteran player scheduled to make a $3 million base salary for 2017.
Crockett Gillmore has been the most productive of the young tight ends on the roster, but the 2014 third-round pick has missed 13 of the Ravens’ last 20 games since emerging as the starter in 2015 with 33 receptions for 412 yards and four touchdowns over 10 contests. His rare combination of blocking ability and productive hands is enticing, but Gillmore must prove he can stay on the field. Even during Thursday’s voluntary workout in Owings Mills, the 6-foot-6, 260-pound specimen left the field with what appeared to be some type of injury.
The Ravens envisioned Maxx Williams having the most upside of any of their current tight ends when they traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to take him, but the Minnesota product did not register a catch in four games last season before undergoing a mysterious knee surgery that no other NFL player has had, according to head coach John Harbaugh. A rookie campaign of 32 receptions and a touchdown in 14 games was respectable given the typical learning curve for tight ends entering the league, but how could anyone possibly know what to expect from the 23-year-old Williams before he returns to the practice field later this summer?
Nick Boyle might be the safest bet to secure no worse than a complementary role with his blocking skills and underrated hands, but the 2015 fifth-round selection from Delaware has twice been suspended for violating the league’s performance-enhancing drug policy and is a strike away from a two-year ban. Despite a steady 24 receptions for 197 yards over his 17 career games as a backup, Boyle’s past doesn’t exactly breed trust to include him in any long-term plans.
And that brings us to Darren Waller, a 2015 sixth-round pick who was converted from wide receiver to tight end last year and easily has the most athleticism and speed in the group. After serving a four-game suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy to begin 2016, the 6-foot-6, 255-pound Waller caught 10 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns. He flashed potential from time to time, but that’s not enough production over 12 games for him to shed the “experiment” label at his new position.
The emergence of at least one or two of the aforementioned names is even more critical this season with the Ravens still lacking a trustworthy short-to-intermediate receiver for quarterback Joe Flacco in the passing game. Baltimore offenses have historically been at their best with a go-to tight end such as Shannon Sharpe, Todd Heap, or Pitta there to move the chains on third down and to shine in the red zone.
As unfortunate as the latest news was about Pitta, the Ravens believe they are prepared for it with a process that began more than two years ago. Pitta’s unexpected return in 2016 offered a one-year safety net with the rest of the group dealing with injuries or suspensions, but his release earlier this week signals the official end of an era.
Now the Ravens will learn whether some of that inventory turns into real depth for a roster with playoff aspirations but with significant questions on the offensive side of the ball.