The Baltimore Ravens are facing many questions this offseason after missing the postseason for the third time in four chances since their Super Bowl XLVII win.
To avoid a possible coaching shake up, John Harbaugh and his staff need to quickly find answers. Anything short of the postseason could results in a few prominent names departing Baltimore.
There are plenty of issues to address in the coming months. Positional searches at pass rusher and wide receiver will grab most of the headlines and attention; we already see it everywhere we look.
Still, there is another, less talked-about group that needs addressing: the tight end position. Given their tight end-friendly offensive schemes as of late, it’s imperative the organization get the most bang for their buck from the big guys on the ends.
Per Russell Street Report’s salary cap guru Brian McFarland, there are currently six tight ends under contract heading into 2017: Dennis Pitta, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle and Darren Waller.
If the Ravens want to make room to improve other areas of the team, several of those names will not have a place on the final 53-man roster come the end of summer.
Pitta rebounded from his hip injuries well in 2016. Joe Flacco’s BFF enjoyed a solid year in the stat column, leading all pass catchers with 86 catches for 729 yards and a disappointing two touchdowns. Pitta’s importance to the offensive game plan was on full display on Sundays.
There is certainly no question Flacco would like to keep his pal around in 2017, but is it in the cards from a financial standpoint? McFarland points out that releasing Pitta would create $3.3 million in cap savings if released before June 1st or $5.5 million if released after June 1st.
“This is a tough one,” stated McFarland regarding number 88 in his offseason preview. “Pitta has made an incredible recovery from his two hip injuries and has proven that he can survive an NFL season intact.
“However, with a $5.5 million base salary due in 2017, he too appears to be vulnerable. His agreement to accept a $4 million pay cut in 2016 saved his roster spot and gave him a chance to prove himself, but it remains to be seen if his 2016 season – remarkable as it was – was enough to earn his return at a $5.5 million salary.
“Another pay cut again this offseason may be needed for Pitta to return.”
Pitta’s high price certainly could keep the Ravens from addressing other needs.
Veteran Benjamin Watson was brought in last season as an insurance policy, given the uphill battle that Pitta was facing. Watson was a work in progress throughout training camp as he developed a good rapport with Joe Flacco. By camp’s end the two appeared as if they had been working together for several seasons. When chains needed to be moved, Watson delivered. Unfortunately, the savvy tight end’s season was over before it started after suffering a torn Achilles tendon on the Ravens first offensive play against Detroit in the preseason.
Watson may not ever play a game for the Ravens, as the team would gain valuable cap space ($3 million) if he is cut. His roster spot could hinge upon the front office’s thinking on Pitta.
The real fly in the ointment regarding the Ravens’ tight end decisions is the fact that their recent youth movement at the position has been a bit of a failure – due to injury and/or stupidity – and has forced their hand in retaining older and more expensive veterans.
Gillmore is a serviceable tight end who – when healthy – has shown glimpses of being a decent blocker with pass-catching ability. The former defensive lineman turned tight end played in the first seven games last season before missing the last nine due to injury. Gillmore appears healthy finally and ready to make the most out of the tight end competition in 2017, per NFL.com.
“I don’t want to come off the field. All downs, every down, and (I want to be) the guy,” Gillmore said in Houston during Super Bowl week, per the team. “There’s no reason I shouldn’t be. There’s no reason I can’t be. That’s great we have nine tight ends. They’re going to enjoy the bench. That’s just reality. I’ll tell them. They know.”
2015 second-round draft pick Maxx Williams is an enigma. Like Gillmore, the former Golden Gopher battled the injury bug last season and ended up on injured reserve. Williams has struggled at times when on the field, especially with gaining separation on opposing defenders. His blocking ability is also lacking so far, but given the team’s reluctance to give up on draft picks quickly, Williams may stick around.
A lot is riding on Williams this offseason and training camp. If he struggles again with staying on the field, he could be the odd man out.
Perhaps the most talented tight end out of the youth movement is former Delaware Blue Hen Nick Boyle. Alas, the best blocking tight end on the Ravens roster is one screw up away from being without an NFL team for good. The 2015 fifth-round selection has amassed suspensions in back to back seasons for violating the league’s performance enhancing drugs policy.
Boyle appeared in six games last season and caught six passes on six targets for a mere 44 yards. It’s clear he remained in John Harbaugh’s doghouse after his activation. 2017 provides Boyle a fighting chance to remain with the team and prove he belongs.
Former wide receiver turned tight end Darren Waller turned heads in his first season at the position when utilized. At 6-6, 255-lbs Waller provides the offense with a dangerous red zone target. While raw, Waller caught 10 passes for 85 yards and two touchdowns in 2016.
If he can better grasp the offense in 2017, Waller is an exciting candidate to unseat a more established player for a roster spot.
The next few weeks should be interesting regarding players and positions for the Ravens. With several teams already releasing players, the answers to some of the tight end questions for the Ravens may come sooner than we think.
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