The hiring of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator means that the Baltimore Ravens are an appealing landing spot for any tight end. The position has become a more important part of NFL playbooks, but it has always been a focal point of Kubiak’s offense.
This is an examination of the men stepping into that role for the Ravens in 2014. Each of the five tight ends will be analyzed with some background, a breakdown of their expected role (and/or the roles they are expected to compete for) and some predictions of their statistical output for the 2014 season.
1. Dennis Pitta
All systems are a go for Dennis Pitta—which must be an incredibly uplifting feeling after the serious hip injury he suffered last offseason that took him out of three-quarters of the season. Pitta was an unrestricted free agent that never hit the market, instead finalizing a five-year deal that keeps him in Baltimore with one of his closest friends (Joe Flacco) throwing him the ball.
Role: Primary Receiver
Pitta will be a part of the three-headed monster that forms the Ravens’ “No. 1 receiver.” Gary Kubiak’s recent offense tended to create a lot of targets for one receiver—Andre Johnson—but the Ravens don’t have one outstanding receiver.
Instead, they have three similarly effective receivers, each with his own niche. Torrey Smith will probably attract the most targets (by a slim margin), but Steve Smith Sr. and Dennis Pitta both figure to be heavily utilized in the middle of the field.
Pitta is listed as a tight end, but in reality he’s just a big receiver. He’s sure to see most of his time in the slot—where he ran just under 80 percent of his routes last year according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun—but he’s versatile enough to line up out wide and be moved around the field.
As a chain mover and red-zone target, Pitta is sure to see a ton of passes thrown his way. He’s poised to deliver the breakout season we all expected before his injury last year.
Stat Projections: 95-110 targets, 60-70 receptions for 700-800 yards and 6-10 TDs
The combination of Pitta’s well-established chemistry with Joe Flacco and Kubiak’s emphasis on the tight ends means that Pitta is in for the best season of his career.
He’s sure to receive a ton of targets from Flacco, who clearly trusts the sure-handed receiver and force-fed him to the tune of 8.25 targets per game in his short-lived comeback in 2013.
That number is sure to drop because Flacco will have a better cast of pass-catchers to choose from, but Pitta will be right up there with Steve Smith Sr. and Torrey Smith in the targets department.
Given the fact that he’s mostly used as an underneath receiver who runs high-completion-percentage routes (see the table below), Pitta will turn the plentiful targets into a good number of catches.
|Season||Catch Rate (Receptions/Targets)|
Stats via ESPN.com
Touchdowns are the most volatile stat to predict (hence the relatively large range) because red-zone production can vary so greatly. Pitta was a goal-line target in 2012, and he’ll be one of the primary weapons in the compressed field again this season.
Even though Pitta is a fairly ineffective run-blocker, he’s one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league, and the Ravens are set with their No. 1 tight end. This is a perfect situation for Pitta, and the odds are good that he delivers a fantastic season.
2. Owen Daniels
It didn’t take too long for Owen Daniels to follow his former head coach to Baltimore after being released by the Houston Texans. Health has been a concern for Daniels over his career (he’s only played 16 games twice in his eight-year career), and it is once again the biggest hurdle as he attempts to recover from a fibula fracture that limited him to just five games last season.
Initially, most of his value will come off the field as he helps his new teammates get acclimated with the new offense—since he’ll be very familiar with Kubiak’s concepts and intentions—but he has the chance to be an impact player when the season rolls around, assuming his health doesn’t hold him back.
Role: Secondary Option/Safety Valve/Red-Zone Target
For most offenses, the secondary tight end isn’t going to play a huge role, but that’s not the case for Gary Kubiak.
According to Larry Hartstein of CBS Sports, Kubiak’s offense targeted TEs a whopping average of 171 times over the last two seasons.
Since Daniels was the primary tight end in those offenses, it’s not wild to make the assumption that he could combine with Pitta to receive a similar number of targets this season.
Daniels’ involvement on offense will be an interesting subplot to keep an eye on. Kubiak loves to get two tight ends on the field (he used more two-TE formations than anyone else in the NFL in 2012), but at least a portion of that personnel choice was because he never had particularly deep receiving corps.
In Baltimore, Daniels will be competing with Marlon Brown and Jacoby Jones as the secondary receivers, and he could end up being the least productive one of the trio.
Regardless of his snap count, Daniels will be a red-zone/third-down safety valve for Joe Flacco and a reliable supporting option in the offense.
Stat Projections: 45-60 targets, 25-35 receptions for 375-475 yards and 3-7 TDs
These stats are dependent on Daniels’ consistent (and fairly sizeable) role in the offense, which is not a guarantee. Between his health, age and competition for playing time, Daniels could very well be in for a significant cut in playing time.
The most sensible outcome is that his role is pretty varied depending on the opponent and the situation of the game (i.e. how much the Ravens will be running the football). Since Pitta is a slot receiver, Daniels is going to be the primary in-line tight end, which should earn him a decent snap count.
At this point, he’s not going to hurt defenses down the field, but Daniels is a good route-runner with plenty of experience and knowledge of where he’s supposed to be in Kubiak’s scheme. Expect him to produce similar numbers to Dallas Clark from last year.
Ideally, the Ravens would want a No. 2 tight end that is a better blocker, and Daniels will need to prove his mettle in the running game. As receivers, however, not many teams have a better pass-catching duo at the position.
Daniels’ health is a big question mark, but he will be an upgrade over Dallas Clark (and certainly Ed Dickson), and his familiarity with Gary Kubiak and his offense will be invaluable.
3. Crockett Gillmore
The third-round pick started his rapid climb up draft boards after an impressive showing on the college all-star game circuit, and he rose as high as the third round where the Ravens snatched him up.
Gillmore caught the eyes of college scouts with his receiving skills and ability to make plays after the catch, but his primary role is as a blocker—and it’s something he takes pride in:
Ravens rook Crockett Gillmore is 6-6, 260 2-way TE: "I'd much rather be considered a blocker that can catch than a receiver that can block.'— Jim Corbett (@ByJimCorbett) May 16, 2014
At 6’6” and 253 pounds, Gillmore certainly has the size to contribute immediately as a blocker, and that will be his ticket onto the field in his rookie season.
Role: Run-Blocker/No. 3 TE around the Goal Line
Gillmore’s primary role will be as a run-blocker. In fact, he may already be a better blocker than Pitta and Daniels—neither of whom have ever graded out positively as run-blockers for a season, according to Pro Football Focus.
|Season||Owen Daniels||Dennis Pitta|
ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required)
As a receiver, he’s still a raw route-runner and won’t overtake Daniels as the secondary option at the position. He will, however, emerge as an intriguing weapon around the goal line because of the impact he can have as a blocker or big-bodied receiver.
He won’t be a prominent part of the offense, but 2014 should set the table for what Gillmore can provide in the long run.
Stat Projections: 20-30 targets, 10-17 receptions for 100-200 yards and 2-4 TDs
Most of his work will come in the red zone, so don’t expect Gillmore to rack up yardage this season. He should be a threat to come down with at least a couple of touchdowns because of how Kubiak utilizes tight ends and play action near the end zone, but the majority of Gillmore’s contributions won’t show up in the box score.
If he’s ahead of schedule as a receiver, Gillmore’s versatility and all-around game give him an outside shot at unseating Daniels as the No. 2 TE.
Gillmore’s small-school status makes him a fairly unknown commodity at this point so his immediate contributions will probably be limited. As a developmental tight end, however, he has plenty of potential to become the perfect complement to Pitta.
No. 4 Phillip Supernaw/No. 5 Nathan Overbay
These two are grouped together because they’re in similar spots and would fulfill the same roles. Both have limited experience working with Coach Kubiak, but it’s hard to see them leapfrogging any of the players ahead of them on the depth chart.
Neither player brings much in the way of catching the football, and both are primarily in-line blockers. They fit the mold of a Billy Bajema or Davon Drew—a tight end rotated in with jumbo packages to add more beef to the run blocking.
Roster Chances: Slim to None
With three TEs ahead of them, it’s unlikely that either one cracks the final 53-man roster unless injury plays a role.
With Dennis Pitta leading the way, tight end will be a strength of the offense. Run blocking is a legitimate concern, however, so it’s worth monitoring how much playing time Crockett Gillmore receives as arguably the best blocker on the roster.
Assuming health isn’t a factor, the Daniels-Pitta duo should put up impressive numbers in Kubiak’s scheme, and the tight ends will be an important part of the passing attack.
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 the latest Ravens news, draft analysis and links to episodes of Ravens Central Radio, follow me on Twitter: