This weekend, while some see it as a day of backups, we can also view it as an audition for the short-term future of Baltimore?
Outside of Robert Griffin III, multiple positions need a closer look prior to entering January. Two key players in particular may have their number called more often in the AFC North Champions’ first playoff game after the bye.
Running Back Justice Hill and tight end Hayden Hurst may have relatively low snap-counts currently, but if there are any setbacks with starters Mark Ingram and/or Mark Andrews, the two could easily see bigger roles in the postseason.
Hill was the fastest RB to come out of the draft in 2019. His 40 time, according to NFL.com, is 4.40 seconds. We saw a flash of what he is capable of last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns as he sliced the opposition for 18 yards on his way to pay dirt to put the game away. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy has been brought in sporadically throughout games but was splitting time with Gus Edwards on Sunday following Ingram’s injury.
Hill may only have 246 total yards on the season, but those numbers will most certainly increase this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Edwards will be the lead Back, but if he continues to show explosiveness, the rookie may eat into the Gus Bus’s workload.
Now that I have covered the ground aspect of at least one of the backups, let’s talk air.
We all know that Lamar Jackson and this Greg Roman-led offense goes through the tight ends. A few years back, Charles Clay was a great example of this scheme being used in Buffalo with Tyrod Taylor. Don’t expect a massive shift from the current system with the insertion of RGIII. The game-plan will still mirror the last 15 games.
That said, Nick Boyle and Hayden Hurst will more than likely be the go-to guys for the air-attack. Andrews suffered a minor injury last week, and the team pulled him for the game, turning the trio into a duet. While Boyle has made a handful of plays, the Ravens drafted Hurst for his home-run hitting ability (think back no further than the Buffalo game, when he reminded us all of his undervalued speed).
The former first-round pick reminded me of Rob Gronkowski when I looked at the college tape. Unfortunately, he caught Gronk’s injury bug along with his beast-like skillset. Between injuries and catching a bit of John Harbaugh’s ire for being injured, “Thor” has been outplayed and basically relegated to third on the depth chart. You could even see his visual frustration throughout the season, especially when he was part of the passing play but felt overlooked.
Harbs has been very open about his opinion of who was his favorite when he said in a recent presser (December 23, 9:21 minute mark on BaltimoreRavens.com):
“I don’t like to mention this publicly, but I have mentioned it to Eric a lot of times. When we first did the evaluation on Mark Andrews, these guys get kind of slotted as to where they’re at, and the truth is, I would say that he was undervalued…but when we first did it, he was our top guy, and Hayden was right there…Mark was my top guy and a number of the scouts’ top guy.”
Let’s rewind to last season after the NFL draft. In an interview on NFL.Com Mike Garafolo made it evident that Harbs was not pleased with players not being “calloused up” enough to practice. In that post-practice-presser, the coach called out tight ends specifically that were tough and mentioned that the rookies were not. Here were his exact words according to the Baltimore Sun:
“You look at the other tight ends. Boyle, look at Maxx Williams — they’re taking every rep out there,” Harbaugh said. “And because the other guys are nicked right now, they’re taking all the reps. They’re not batting an eye. Why? Because they’re callused up, because they know how to practice, because their bodies are just tougher. There’s a physical toughness to it. They’re mentally tough. But you have to practice football to be able to practice football the right way.”
Those comments resonated with Hurst because he was back at practice that day. I hope that come this Sunday, the redheaded monster will use all of this as fuel as he may get an extended look. Andrews’ injury was minor, but I’m sure if there is any doubt he is 100%, Hurst will lead the team in receptions against the black and yellow.
Hill and Hurst have been waiting in the shadows for their chance to shine, and that time has come.