In a world where top wide receivers are a fixture on the league’s best teams, the Baltimore Ravens are running in the opposite direction in their overall methodology. They are drafting and developing tight ends to be receiving weapons and gain an advantage over other teams as prices for receivers skyrocket.
The seeds for this pseudo-revolution came in 2018. In his final draft class, Ozzie Newsome selected a pair of tight ends: Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews. Teams occasionally draft multiple players at a position, but drafting two tight ends in the first three rounds of the draft was perplexing.
Four seasons later, Andrews had an All-Pro season while Hurst had been flipped for a draft pick that became J.K. Dobbins. The Ravens’ initial investment netted them two starters. Andrews, one of the premier pass catchers in the league, is also making a fraction of the cost of wide receivers.
2019 to 2021
The Ravens spent six meaningful picks on wide receivers in these three drafts. They nabbed Marquise Brown (2019) and Rashod Bateman (2021) in the first round. They turned third-round picks into Miles Boykin (2019) and Devin Duvernay (2020). A fourth-round pick became Tylan Wallace (2021), and James Proche (2020) was a sixth-round pick.
So far, the Ravens have not matched their 2018 success with subsequent picks of pass catchers. Neither of the 2019 pair plays for the Ravens anymore (although Brown became Tyler Linderbaum through trade). The 2020 pair appear destined to be No.3 receivers at best.
The jury is still out on Bateman, currently the top receiver on the team, but Wallace seems to be trending down.
In six bites at the receiver apple, Eric DeCosta and the Ravens haven’t found a good spot. Bateman and Brown (now Linderbaum) could be the right pieces, but the other pieces seem to be closer to whiffs than potential hits.
There were two general thoughts after Day 3 of the NFL draft ended about the Ravens.
First: “Wow, the Ravens had a great string of value picks in this draft.”
Second: “Wait, they left the draft with fewer receivers than they began with?”
The early returns on the first thought are promising. At the very least, the Ravens improved their depth dramatically. The second thought needs more unpacking. While the Ravens did trade Brown to the Arizona Cardinals, two picks in the fourth round clued the world in on the strategy of the future: tight ends.
Optimizing the Roster
The Ravens pulled the trigger on Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar and Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely. As prospects, both players fall firmly in the “receiving tight end” bucket. Likely has some value as a backfield blocker (a role occupied by Patrick Ricard), but neither of them offers much as an in-line tight end.
It might read “TE” in their bios, but Kolar and Likely are unequivocally receivers, especially in this offense. The Ravens will feature a steady dose of 12 personnel and perhaps 13 personnel, getting as many tight ends on the field at a time.
Defenses are being pulled in two different directions when the Baltimore Ravens deploy this big set. First, Andrews is already occupying the attention of a team’s “tight end eraser” (if they have one). Second, adding a tight end forces the defense to show their hand.
If they opt for a coverage-oriented player, the Ravens have the advantage of facing a lighter defense. Even though Kolar and Likely aren’t great blockers, they can get in the way of smaller defensive backs.
If the defense opts for a bigger body, they likely will be at a disadvantage if the Baltimore Ravens decide to throw the football. As a third option, having a heavier defense could open up the horizontal rushing attack, a recipe for explosive plays when used correctly.
Having a mismatch creator is a major advantage for the Baltimore Ravens. However, tight ends will be making about half that of a wide receiver. Andrews, the reigning All-Pro, makes $14 million per season. Two wide receivers make at least twice as much. If Andrews was listed as a wide receiver, he would be 28th in average annual value.
By having an elite tight end as the focal point, the Ravens are saving money that can be invested into other positions. With Andrews ($14 million per year) and the two 2022 draft picks (a little more than $2 million per year), the Baltimore Ravens are giving them flexibility at other positions.
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