On Monday, the Baltimore Ravens took a big step toward improving the future prospects of their offense by hiring new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
The new coaching staff on the offensive side promises to help improve a Baltimore team that failed to score more than 30 points in a game in 2013. In the one game the team scored 30 (Week 3 vs. Houston), two of the touchdowns were defense/special teams (Tandon Doss punt return, Daryl Smith interception return).
With Kubiak and Rick Dennison in Baltimore, the offense should improve slightly due to the new coaching regime alone.
But without improved personnel on offense, the difference between 2013 and 2014 won’t be too noticeable.
With plenty of uncertainty at almost every position on offense, the Ravens will have to hit a home run in the offseason to give quarterback Joe Flacco what he needs to succeed next season. The one position with the most uncertainty is tight end, as once free agency starts, the Ravens will have no tight ends from last year’s active roster – Dennis Pitta, Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark are all unrestricted free agents.
The general consensus seems to be that Pitta will be among Baltimore’s top offseason priorities, especially with a former Houston Texans staff that had plenty of success with tight ends.
Dickson and Clark are afterthoughts, but could still be brought back if their value on the open market is much lower than expected.
But where the Ravens need to turn to is the draft, where they could pair a rookie tight end with Pitta to make a dynamic one-two punch. The draft offers plenty of options, including Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas.
The junior tight end declared for the draft after just one full season as a tight end for the Fighting Irish. As a freshman, he played outside linebacker, and then in 2012 he made the transition to the offensive side, catching just five passes in minimal playing time.
The 2013 season is his only season with a fulltime role at tight end in his football career (he was an offensive and defensive lineman in high school). Niklas is far from refined, but he may be the perfect complement to Pitta, if Pitta is indeed re-signed by Baltimore.
What Baltimore needs is a tight end who can play a more traditional in-line role, similar to what Dickson did for the Ravens over the last few years. Pitta is technically a wide receiver, although he’s still labeled as a tight end. He rarely ever lines up inside next to a tackle to block, and almost exclusively operates out of the slot.
Having no tight ends on the roster that can play on the line and block isn’t a recipe for success for an NFL offense, and adding a blocker like Niklas could complement Pitta well.
The lineman background of Niklas is noticeable as a blocker, as he keeps his body square and balanced when isolated on a man.
He does have inconsistencies when run blocking, mainly when he tries to use his long arms to reach out instead of fully engaging with a defender. But when he does engage, he can be a violent lead blocker.
His ability to block in the open field is a valuable asset.
In the play above, Niklas was able to engage first and then use his long arms to hold off his man.
He has developing to do as a blocker, but he is still one of the most talented blocking tight ends in this year’s draft.
The Ravens used Dickson as a blocker because they had to, not necessarily because he excelled at what he did. With Pitta lined up in the slot, Dickson assumed the role by default, and didn’t provide much value as a blocker (-18.2 run blocking grade in 2013 per PFF). Upgrading the blocking aspect of the tight end position could be one of the missing pieces to improve the running game.
Niklas also excels as a pass catcher, as his Rob Gronkowski-like build helps him high-point contested catches and box out defenders.
As a red zone target, Niklas uses his 6’6, 270 pound frame to become a go-to guy even when he’s covered.
When he make look covered in the end zone, his ability to catch the ball at its highest point still makes him a dependable target.
Until he implements more refinement into his game, Niklas will likely be limited to a blocking, red zone and short yardage role.
He has favorable acceleration after the catch and (usually) reliable hands, but his route-running right now is that of a novice tight end. It’s noticeable that he’s new to the position as he runs his routes with hesitation and poor balance.
That may be a long-term issue or it may just be due to the fact he is new to the position.
He relies more on his size and physical play right now than his routes to get open. He tends to push off (but doesn’t usually get called for it) which isn’t a problem if it works. But until he improves his routes, NFL defenders will likely easily be able to shake him off them.
When Niklas does get enough separation to get open, he provides gems like this.
Where Niklas goes in the draft depends on how much NFL teams think he can develop. With more refinement, Niklas could be as multi-dimensional as an NFL tight end can get.
A Pitta-Niklas pair at tight end for Baltimore would be an intriguing duo.
More Niklas clips HERE, c/o DraftBreakdown.com.