PITTA SIGNS LONG TERM DEAL
Last Friday, the Ravens agreed to terms on a five-year, $32 million contract. with tight end Dennis Pitta. There was never much question about where the free agent would have played in 2014, as the team was expected to use the franchise tag on Pitta in the event the two sides were unable to agree on a long-term deal.
Pitta was injured before the beginning of last season but returned in the second half and made an immediate impact on the offense, catching 20 passes for 169 yards in the final four games. In 2012 he caught 61 balls for 669 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season, all career-highs. Pitta was integral to the team’s 2012 Super Bowl run as well, catching a touchdown in three of the four postseason games.
Pitta is as big a part of the Ravens offense as any tight end in football when healthy. According to ESPN Stats and Information, Pitta has been one of the most targeted tight ends in the NFL over the last two seasons behind only New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
“Dennis creates a number of mismatch problems for defenses,” General Manager Ozzie Newsome said of Pitta. “He makes it tough on them, and because of that, he really helps out our wide receivers. Opponents always have to pay attention to where he lines up and where his routes take him. Dennis is also a big target with very good hands, and his presence in the red zone is important to us.”
BIRK BACKS GRADKOWSKI
Earlier this week, center Gino Gradkowski received a vote of confidence from former Ravens’ center Matt Birk. Birk retired after the Super Bowl following the 2012 season but was back in town recently to promote his new book, “All-Pro Wisdom: The 7 Choices That Lead to Greatness.”
Gradkowski struggled in 2013 (especially in pass blocking) and finished 2013 with a -14.9 rating as a pass protector, per ProFootballFocus grades. Gradkowski is often criticized for his small size, but he admitted after the season that the bigger issue was the mental aspect of the game. Gradkowski did improve as the season went on however, as five of his worst performances of the season were in the first five games.
Gradkowski played well according to Birk, who felt that the young center “played his butt off” last season. Gradkowski has heaped praise back at Birk as well, saying before last season’s finale game that Birk was one of the more intelligent players in the league.
“Matt was a 15-year veteran who had seen it all and was one of the smartest centers to play the position,” Gino said.
Birk feels that Gradkowski can take this offseason to slow down the mental aspects of the game in order to better understand his assignments. Birk’s career also began as a backup, but he became a starter in 2000 and was a Pro Bowler that same year. For the Ravens’ sake, hopefully Gradkowski can take a similar career path.
RAVENS CUT MCCLAIN AND LEACH
Last week the Ravens opted to cut fullback Vonta Leach and linebacker Jameel McClain prior to the beginning of free agency on March 11th. They will save close to $5 million in cap space for the 2014 season for two part time players who made minimal contributions in 2013.
Leach played at a high level as far as fullbacks are considered, but saw his snaps reduced in 2014 and said recently he plans to only play for another season or two. Leach played on less than 20% of the team’s offensive snaps as the running game took a step back in 2014.
McClain was one of 2013’s best stories as he returned from a spinal cord injury to make an impact, but carried a high cap number, and only started in 10 of 16 games. He finished the season with 52 tackles and one forced fumble.
Neither player was a big part of the team in 2013, but both players were respectable men both on and off the field and are reportedly open to returning at lower salaries. Head Coach John Harbaugh said of the terminations, “There could come a point later on when we would consider bringing back Vonta and Jameel. They are our types of players.”
NEW OFFENSIVE PLAYBOOK ALMOST COMPLETE
According to The Baltimore Sun, the Ravens are nearly finished developing the offensive playbook for the 2014 season. After new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak was hired earlier this offseason, the new playbook was one of his immediate priorities, and according to head coach John Harbaugh it is almost finished.
Harbaugh said at the scouting combine last week that the playbook would be given to quarterback Joe Flacco soon and that X’s and O’s would be discussed shortly thereafter. The playbook is not expected to be drastically changed but will be likely place more emphasis on the running game than in years past.
Another aspect of the offense expected to increase is the role of the tight ends, including the aforementioned Pitta. In Kubiak’s time with the Houston Texans, a lot of the pass plays involved bootlegs and plays designed to utilize Texans tight ends Owen Daniels, Garret Graham and Joel Dreessen.
In the past, Flacco has been effective throwing from the play-action, another element expected to increase in 2014. Flacco’s ability to get the ball deep to wide receiver Torrey Smith opens up the middle of the field for Pitta – and the rest of the currently undetermined tight end corps in Baltimore – to have career years in 2014.