Ravens Position Preview – Tight Ends
Shortly after deciding to take a look at the Ravens group of tight ends, the position got a shake up when news broke of Darren Waller being suspended for one-year. Waller violated the NFL’s substance abuse policy for the second time in a year. He was suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season and talked candidly to the Ravens about his marijuana usage as an outlet to battle personal issues.
Darren Waller will be allowed to participate in all preseason activities and games, but must be separated from the team at the start of the regular season. The Ravens will talk up the impact this will have moving forward. But the truth is that the 2015 sixth round pick has caught just 12 passes in two years. He’s got the physical attributes that receivers dream of possessing at 6’6”, 225 pounds, and the ability to run a 4.4 40-yard dash. The off field issues cost him playing time at Georgia Tech. It could have hampered him from channeling those physical attributes into on-field production. Now it’s cost him over $600k in salary and maybe any semblance of a relevant future in the league.
With Waller out of the picture and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Dennis Pitta’s release due to breaking hip a third time, here’s a look at the current group of tight ends who will compete for playing time.
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Ben Watson: With Steve Smith having retired, the role of Father Time on the Ravens offense belongs to the 36-year-old Watson. He’ll look to return to full strength after a torn Achilles ended his 2016 campaign before it even started. He set career highs in offensive output in 2015 with the pass heavy New Orleans Saints. Joe Flacco loves to rely on his tight ends in the west coast, short passing game. If at 100%, Watson has the best shot at starting for the Ravens and replacing the output Dennis Pitta gave last year.2015 Watson (Saints): 74 receptions, 825 yards, 6 touchdowns 2016 Pitta (Ravens): 86 receptions, 729 yards, 2 touchdowns
Watson doesn’t exactly solve a problem the Ravens have had with their receivers last year. That being gaining separation and racking up yards after the catch. In 2015, Watson’s 3.6 YAC was 58th out of 73 qualifying TEs. Watson is also not known as much of a blocker which was also something that slowed the run game when Pitta was in there.
Crockett Gillmore: The former third round pick in 2014 might have the most tools of the entire group. He’s big at 6’6” and 260 pounds. He can catch, he can block, he can run over defenders showing flashes of an unstoppable force a few times in his young career. The problem is that his physical style has taken a toll on his body. A broken back, a torn hamstring in two places, and shoulder surgery are a few issues he hopes to put in the rear view entering his fourth season.
It’s a contract season for Gillmore who will make $690k this season. He’ll want to put out his best efforts to becomes one of the top tight ends in the league. Doing so could fetch him a deal around about $8M a year. But if the injury bug that has limited him to dressing for 32 out of 48 games (16 starts), he’ll be a bargain in 2018 for a team willing to take a chance on an injury risk.
Maxx Williams: According to Coach John Harbaugh during the 2015 preseason, Maxx Williams was brought here to do one thing. Catch footballs. He wasn’t heralded as a blocker. Williams was always likely to take a little longer to develop as he was just able to legally drink alcohol right around the time he was drafted.
Oddly enough he ended up grading out pretty well as a blocker in his 2015 rookie season, citing that he didn’t come from a spread offense at the University of Minnesota. He had experience blocking giving him a leg up on the other tight ends who make the transition to the pros. Williams looked the part of a breakout star for 2016, but only dressed for four games as lingering knee issues eventually landed him on IR. It was a cartilage issue that required major surgery.
Now 23 and in his third season, Williams is a candidate to start the season on the PUP list, eight months removed from surgery. It’s vague right now when we can expect that he’ll step on the field in pads. How much if any practice will Maxx get this preseason? Too early to tell.
Nick Boyle: Another disappointment from the preventable incident department. Boyle had served a 10-game suspension to start 2016 for a second performance enhancing drug violation. The first landed him a four-game suspension to end 2015. Can’t be that hard to check labels, check the banned substance list, can it?
Harbaugh seems willing to Boyle every chance he possibly can. Even facing a 10-game suspension, Boyle saw more than enough preseason action in 2016. He was reportedly getting a hefty workload with the first team in OTAs, and maybe looking to fill the H-Back role vacated by Kyle Juszczyk who was signed as a free agent by San Francisco during the offseason. Boyle was always looked at as a better blocker than receiver, especially with a 5.06 40-yard dash time he posted at the combine.
Like Williams, Boyle is also entering season three, but with almost a full season of games absent. Less wear and tear on his body. Maybe the H-Back role will suit Boyle well. The Ravens don’t use their “H-Back” like a fullback, someone who you hand the rock to to get a couple tough yards. They either stay home to block or go in motion as a receiver.
Ryan Malleck: Malleck went undrafted to the New York Giants out of Virginia Tech in 2016. He bounced from there, to Pittsburgh, and the Ravens picked him up when Dennis Pitta went down. Having not earned a roster spot in the NFL yet, he’ll look to make his mark on special teams. Or he’ll be cast off hoping a fourth team gives him a look.
At first glance it seemed like the Ravens were stacked at the position. Given recent events, the way playing time will be sorted out is anyone’s guess at this point.
Side note: O.J. Howard is a name some Ravens fans wanted to see called on draft night. The Buccaneers drafted the tight end some are comparing to Rob Gronkowski (I’ll believe that when I see it and I haven’t yet) when the Ravens passed to take CB Marlon Humphrey. Tampa Bay is still very happy with the pick. We’ll see how this plays out.