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Why Dennis Pitta Is Worth the Money for the Baltimore Ravens

Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta warms up before an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, in Baltimore, his first game since injuring himself during training camp. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
Nick Wass/Associated Press
Shehan PeirisCorrespondent IIIMarch 7, 2014

Dennis Pitta is a happy man, and the Baltimore Ravens (and their fans) should be happy too. After signing a 5-year, $32-million contract, some are of the opinion that the Ravens overpaid to retain the services of a one-dimensional tight end with average athleticism. Those people are wrong.

I get the initial gut reaction. Paying $6.4 million per year to a tight end who doesn’t block and isn’t an athletic freak?! But that number isn’t really so high—especially when you consider how the tight end position has changed over the last five years. Here’s a look at the highest-paid tight ends in the league and the stats from their most recent healthy season (meaning at least 14 games):

Tight Ends Around the League
PlayerAverage Annual SalaryReceptionsYardsTDs
Rob Gronkowski$9,000,000901,32717
Jason Witten$7,400,000738518
Vernon Davis$7,350,0005285013
Antonio Gates$7,235,000778724
Jimmy Graham$7,035,000861,21516
Jared Cook$7,020,000516715
Jermichael Finley$7,000,000616672
Tony Gonzalez$7,000,000838598
Zach Miller$6,800,000383963
Marcedes Lewis$6,800,000525404
Dennis Pitta$6,400,000616697
Greg Olsen$5,700,000738166
Owen Daniels$5,421,875627166
OverTheCap.com

This table shows just how much the tight end is becoming a weapon in modern offenses, but it reveals two more things. Firstly, Dennis Pitta truly belongs in this group of the top tight ends in the league based on his 2012 numbers.

Secondly, Pitta’s deal is pretty good considering some of the names ahead of him. Guys like Jared Cook, Jermichael Finley, Marcedes Lewis and Zach Miller all make more than Pitta—and to be fair, they’re all better blockers—but none of them compare to Pitta as a receiver and route runner.

Let’s evaluate Pitta for what he really is: a receiver. We can get caught in the positional label of “tight end,” but he’s a bona fide receiver by trade and that’s how the Ravens are going to use him. Most of his snaps last year (albeit in a small sample size of four games) came out of the slot, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:

Pitta was basically a slot receiver in 2013
Pitta was basically a slot receiver in 2013Stats courtesy of BaltimoreSun.com; Graph courtesy of yours truly

Pitta gives the offense a much-needed playmaker on third down and in the red zone (the Ravens ranked 21st and 31st respectively in those categories in 2013, per TeamRankings.com), and he is the only receiver on the roster (right now, at least) that can consistently gain separation through route running and reliably produce in the short-to-intermediate passing game.

He has some of the surest hands in the league at his position, as evidenced by his drop rate—a signature stat of ProFootballFocus (subscription required)—in 2011 and 2012 (the only years he qualifies for the stat due to targets):

Dennis Pitta's Drop Rate
YearCatchable PassesDropsDrop RateTE Rank
201140001st out of 35
20126134.696th out of 37
ProFootballFocus.com

Furthermore, he can make contested catches which is a welcome skill for the Ravens offense. Do we really need a reminder of how terrible the passing game looked without Anquan Boldin and Dennis Pitta to make tough grabs?

September 10, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta (88) catches a touchdown pass during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

And that brings us to the next point: the future—specifically this season. You may complain that Baltimore is shelling out money for a receiver that has only caught over 40 passes once in his career (2012), but this contract isn’t for the previous five years of Pitta’s career. It’s for the coming five years, which is good for Baltimore considering Pitta’s upward career trajectory.

Let’s not forget that he seemed like a lock to have a breakout campaign in 2013 before a brutal injury robbed him of three quarters of the year. Without Boldin in the mix, Pitta is the primary receiver in the short passing game and in the middle of the field. That means plenty of targets and the opportunity to put up big numbers.

Then there’s the Gary Kubiak factor.

Kubiak loves using tight ends. He’s done it in the past, and he’ll continue to do it moving forward. Don’t believe me? Check the numbers posted by his primary tight ends in Houston and Denver:

Owen Daniels Under Gary Kubiak (Houston Texans)
YearReceptionsYardsGamesTDs
200870862162
20094051985
201038471112
201154677153
201262716156
BaltimoreRavens.com
Shannon Sharpe Under Gary Kubiak (Denver Broncos)
YearReceptionsYardsGamesTDs
199563756134
19968010621510
1997721107163
1998647681610
BaltimoreRavens.com

If those numbers aren’t good enough for you, here’s what Gary Kubiak told Garrett Downing of BaltimoreRavens.com:

I remember studying Dennis, and I’m very impressed with him as a player. I know he went through a tough year this year with getting injured, but that position has always been a big part of our offense. I’m sure it won’t be any different.

Kubiak has traditionally used his tight ends as one of his primary weapons—particularly in the red zone—and Pitta is thrilled at the opportunity to work with the renowned offensive mind, according to Ryan Mink of the official team website:

It’s not all about statistics, but [Kubiak’s tight ends have] been productive, and they have been a centerpiece to that offense. So I feel like I can produce in that same way, and I’m excited about the challenge and ready to get going. I’m excited to be able to kind of fill that role, to be able to be a big part of the offense going forward and excited to be in a new system and get a fresh start for our offense.

Not only does Pitta have an offensive coordinator that is sure to highlight him in the offense, but he has a quarterback that loves to get him the football and is one of his best friends.

September 10, 2012; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco (5) talks to tight end Dennis Pitta (88) during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Pitta admitted to Garrett Downing that his relationship with Joe Flacco was a factor in his decision to stay in Baltimore:

You know where you fit into an offense and you have a good relationship with the quarterback. That on-field chemistry is important. Joe and I certainly have that, so we can kind of continue to build off that and kind of pick up where we left off. It’s exciting to be part of it. He wanted me to stay as much as I wanted to stay. We have a great friendship and a good chemistry on the field. It was something I certainly wanted for my career and I’m sure he enjoys the fact that I’m staying.

Their chemistry is evident on the field at the end of last year, as Pitta has emerged as Flacco’s security blanket and go-to target.

The Joe Flacco-Dennis Pitta Connection
YearTargets Per Game
20126.81
20137.75
ProFootballFocus.com

With all the physical tools at his disposal and a perfect system awaiting him in 2014, Dennis Pitta is poised to have the greatest season of his career in 2014 and claw his way into the upper echelon of pass-catching tight ends.

Six million dollars may seem like too much cash right now, but Pitta will look like a bargain at the end of this year. Do you still think he’s not worth the money?

 

 

Shehan Peiris is B/R's lead Featured Columnist covering the Baltimore Ravens and a co-host of Ravens Central Radio, a weekly podcast on the Pro Football Central radio network that focuses on all things Ravens-related. For breaking news, roster evaluation, draft analysis and links to the latest episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter:

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