Heading into the 2018 off-season, the Baltimore Ravens were in desperate need of an overhaul at the Wide Receiver and Tight End positions. The early free agency period saw the acquisition of receivers John Brown and Michael Crabtree, which is a good start, but it’s clear there’s still plenty of moves that need to be made at both positions.
At this point in the year, you could make a strong argument that the team’s biggest need is at Tight End. The Ravens currently employ three players at the position, but there’s no one to write home about.
Maxx Williams: The Ravens traded up in the second round of the 2015 draft to select Maxx Williams ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, calling Williams a disappointment would be a huge understatement. After a rookie season where he showed mild flashes of potential, Williams has had problems staying on the field. He’s recorded only 36 receiving yards since 2016 and is entering his contract year with the “bust” label firmly planted on him.
Nick Boyle: The second TE drafted by the team in the 2015 draft. Boyle had a lackluster combine which lead to him being projected as a 5th round pick, which is exactly where he was selected. Not necessarily known as a pass catcher, Boyle has never cracked more than 36 yards in a single game and has yet to find the endzone in his first three years. He should see playing time this year in certain formations due to being an above average blocker, but he’s not the kind of guy that should be referred to as a starter on any football team. Boyle also has had two separate suspensions for PEDs, the most recent of which occurring a little over two years ago, and is almost certainly one strike away from being unemployed.
Darren Waller: Speaking of drug-related suspensions, Waller is the third and final TE on the Ravens’ roster. Drafted in the 6th round of the now infamous 2015 draft, Waller started his career as a raw WR prospect before making the change to TE. Aside from being a beast in Madden 18, Waller has contributed virtually nothing to the team since being drafted. He has more games missed due to suspensions than he does career catches, and is likely off the team after this season, if not earlier.
So it’s safe to say the Ravens need some help. But where can they find it? Trey Burton, Jimmy Graham, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tyler Eifert, Cameron Brate, and Eric Ebron have all signed new deals, and the list of available TEs is looking pretty thin.
Benjamin Watson: Watson will be 37 this coming season, but showed last year that he can still be moderately effective as a pass catcher. He won’t revitalize the position, but he’s familiar with the offense. He turned in a solid year in 2017 that featured 61 catches for over 500 yards and 4 scores. Watson isn’t a game-breaker by any stretch, but he was reliable for the team, even when no one else was, and bounced back nicely from an ACL injury in 2016 that seemed like a career ender at the time.
Antonio Gates: Is 37 not old enough for you? Maybe the 38 year old Antonio Gates would be more your style. Gates has had a legendary, hall of fame worthy, 15 year career with the chargers; but with Hunter Henry on the roster, the team decided to let Gates test free agency. They’ll move forward with the tandem of Henry and newly signed blocking specialist Virgil Green, leaving Gates without a team for the time being. Gates has indicated he wants to continue playing and believes he can still contribute on the field. Perhaps the Ravens could view the all-time TE TD leader as a one year stop gap as they look to develop young talent for the future.
Marcedes Lewis: Ravens fans may remember Lewis as a redzone menace in the atrocious London game from a year ago, where he scored 3 TDs against the then number one defense in the league. However, aside from that game and a pro-bowl year in 2010, he’s never really been a playmaker throughout his career. His production has tapered off over the last 5 years as he enters the twilight of his career. Now more of a blocker, Lewis doesn’t necessarily add anything that Nick Boyle and Maxx Williams don’t already bring to the team, but he could be a decent depth option if the deal is cheap enough.
Julius Thomas: What a difference a quarterback can make. In two years with Peyton Manning, Thomas averaged 12 touchdowns and over 600 yards per year. In three years with Blake Bortles and Jay Cutler he has 12 total touchdowns, and averaged about 375 yards per year. Joe Flacco is somewhere between those two extreme ends of the spectrum. Of all the free agent options, Thomas seems like the most likely signing. There haven’t been any reports of negotiations, but he’s a little younger than the previous 3 options, should come generally cheap, and still has potential upside at his age 30 season. We’ll likely never see the Julius Thomas we saw in his monster 2013 season, but a serviceable veteran would be an upgrade at the position.
Taken in the third round of the 2014 draft, Rodgers was supposed to be a big piece in helping take the Packers’ passing attack to the next level. After a decent rookie campaign, Rodgers took a huge step, becoming an under-rated playmaker in 2015. His second season saw him record over 500 yards and 8 TDs, including the game winner off of Aaron Rodgers’ Hail Mary in Detroit
. Since then, he’s seen a diminished role and is now off the team after finishing out his rookie contract. Rodgers is the remaining free agent with the highest potential ceiling, and perhaps a change of scenery could do well for his career. Though he lacks blazing speed, Rodgers has good hands, good size, and blocks well enough to be considered an every-down player. At the age of 26, he also has the highest potential for longevity on the list.
In my mind, the best course of action for the Ravens would be signing one of the remaining free agents and pairing him up with an early to mid-round draft pick. With very few exceptions, the transition from college to the NFL has been notoriously difficult for rookie TEs. This draft lacks anyone that can be considered a complete player at the position, but does boast a few potential playmakers.
Dallas Goedert: Potentially the first of his position to be taken off the board, Goedert is also the TE with the most questions coming into the draft. He flashed a ton of potential on film and put up excellent numbers, but he did so against lower level competition. He didn’t help clear up any questions when he didn’t complete most of the combine drills. The only drill he participated in was the bench press, where he lead the position with 23. Goedert has great size and athleticism, and was able to get open at every level last year. Though not overly powerful, he saw significant snaps as a blocker, where he fared pretty well and showed high football IQ. Whether he can still compete at a higher level is currently unknown; but if his skillset translates well and he doesn’t get overpowered at the NFL level, he could be a starter for years to come. He’s currently projected as a second round pick, but anywhere from the first to the third wouldn’t be surprising depending on how each team values him. He’s the closest to an every down TE the draft has to offer, and could be a great addition to the team if he fares well in the big leagues.
Hayden Hurst: Hurst will be a 25 year old rookie, but don’t let that scare you away from what he brings as a prospect. He has great speed and quickness, as well as absolutely elite hands, and packs it into a big, durable frame. His straight-line speed is ideal for seam routes up the middle, and he’s shifty enough to gain extra yards after the catch. He has a quick release and only one career drop with about 100 catches. His run blocking, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Bad footwork and overall form leads to him being beat often and makes him a one dimensional tool for the offense. It’s possible that coaching at the NFL level can improve this area of his game, but his older age leaves him less time to develop as a player. That said, his abilities as a receiver shouldn’t be overlooked, and he’d immediately become the kind of safety blanket Joe Flacco hasn’t seen since Dennis Pitta. He’s projected as a second round pick. If the Ravens drafted him, he’d likely become an immediate starter and could make an impact right away. Hurst is likely the most NFL ready at the position this year.
Mark Andrews: Mark Andrews is a versatile player that can line up at both the conventional Tight End position, as well as in the slot. In his final year he won the John Mackey Award, which is given to the Nation’s top TE. Like pretty much every player on this list, Andrews is big and fast. He truly plays like a giant WR, which is both good and bad. He’s a poor blocker and will have much more difficulty in the NFL, but if utilized properly can be a difference maker. He’s a great route runner and could excel as a red zone threat on our offense. He adjusts to throws well and can be moved anywhere in the formation and excel as a receiver. As a potential starting slot receiver, Andrews is an interesting prospect, but he won’t be able to transform into an every down TE at the NFL level. He’s projected to go in the 3rd or 4th round currently.
Mike Gesicki: Mike Gesicki is an athletic freak. He was the standout of the TE group at the combine, and his play on film backs him up. He’s the fastest TE in the draft and is already a great route runner. He could become a verticle threat similar to Travis Kelce, and has shown a knack for winning contested catches down the field. Despite his size, he plays with less strength than you’d like, which manifests itself in his awful blocking. Remember what I said about Andrews’ blocking above? Gesicki is arguably worse. That said, he has long arms and was a college basketball and volleyball player. His history in other sports has and will continue to translate well to football, as he’s able to highpoint the ball and box out defenders with ease. Hayden Hurst may be the surest pick with the best hands, but Gesicki is the most exciting option with the highest ceiling as a pass catcher if used correctly. He’s projected as a second round pick currently, and could add a lot of excitement to an offense that wasn’t very fun to watch in 2017.
With the current state of the TE depth chart, it’s a safe bet to assume the Ravens will look to add pieces in the off-season. Whether it be through free agency, the draft, or both, the revamping of the offense will be make or break in 2018. Every player mentioned is a legitimate option for the team, and they all bring something unique to the table. The decisions made will be huge for the team going forward, and it should be exciting to continue watching the team evolve.