Baltimore Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta broke out in 2012, catching 61 of 93 regular-season passes thrown his way for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He also added 21 receptions for 233 yards and four touchdowns in the Ravens' postseason run that ended with a Super Bowl championship.
He made such an impact that the Ravens were willing to trade another breakout player from 2012, wide receiver Anquan Boldin, to the San Francisco 49ers in 2013's offseason.
However, the Ravens weren't anticipating what came next. Pitta broke and dislocated his hip early in training camp last year and didn't return to the field until December. Without Pitta and Boldin and with an inability to run the ball, the Ravens ended the season with an 8-8 record, missing the playoffs for the first time since head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco paired up.
|Year||Targets||Receptions||Rec. Yards||Rec. %||TDs|
Source: ESPN; regular season only
This year, things should be drastically different for Pitta. He's completely healthy for one. And the Ravens have a very tight end-friendly offensive coordinator in Gary Kubiak. The big plans the Ravens had for Pitta last year seem finally about to come to fruition.
Pitta became a more prominent part of Baltimore's offense in his second season, 2011, when he caught 40 passes for 405 yards and three scores. His performance made him the team's starting tight end over Ed Dickson in 2012, and he didn't disappoint when given the opportunity. Last year's injury was the only thing holding him back.
Now, Pitta will be paired up with Owen Daniels, a former Houston Texans tight end who is quite familiar with Kubiak's system. However, Pitta will be more than a tight end. Via Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, Pitta said after minicamp wrapped earlier in June:
I have done a lot of different things in this offense already. I would assume that would continue to increase, but I'm trying to get down the basics still right now and trying to be effective at some of our basic plays, and hopefully, I can get in a position where I can play a variety of positions.
That will include the traditional tight end role as well as lining up wide as a receiver and even working out of the backfield. Pitta is familiar with taking on so much offensive responsibility, though, of course, as he noted, working out the nuances of a new system and an adaptation of the role his position plays will be his biggest challenge once training camp begins later in the month.
In 2012, Pitta's most productive year, the vast majority of his targets came within nine yards of the line of scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), typical areas in which a tight end catches passes. He worked in the flat and caught passes over the middle.
He wasn't used much in the backfield or sent deep very often. He saw only 13 passes thrown to him that went 10 or more yards in the air and eight thrown to him in negative yardage behind the line of scrimmage. Both of those things seem poised to change in Kubiak's system.
Though Daniels and Garrett Graham, Kubiak's two most recent receiving tight ends in Houston, didn't see many deep targets, they were working with quarterback Matt Schaub.
At his best (as in not in 2013), Schaub is an efficient game manager, not a big-armed, deep-passing threat. Flacco, on the other hand, has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, but his deep throws have mostly been reserved for receiver Torrey Smith.
Using Pitta as a wideout will help a Ravens receiving corps that is mostly young and lacking in experience. Torrey Smith is the longest-tenured Ravens receiver to catch Flacco's passes. Though they added veteran Steve Smith in free agency, the 35-year-old isn't part of the team's long-term plans.
Baltimore's other options are second-year undrafted player Marlon Brown, return man and sometimes receiver Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson—who played only 160 snaps in 2013, per Pro Football Focus—and the perpetually-on-the-roster-bubble LaQuan Williams. This dearth of proven depth demands that Pitta take on an expanded role. It helps that he has the speed and athleticism to do so.
Who will lead the Ravens in receiving yards this year?
What Pitta brings that someone like Brown doesn't is reliability. In his career, Pitta has caught 65.2 percent of the passes thrown his way. Brown caught 60.5 percent of the passes thrown to him last year. Torrey Smith, ever the specialist, only caught 46.8 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2013 and 47.7 percent on his career.
By necessity, Pitta needs to be more involved in the passing game beyond what is traditional for a tight end. Kubiak recognizes this, and the result could easily be Pitta leading the Ravens in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns this year.
This was the Ravens' plan for Pitta since his phenomenal 2012 season. His injury last July derailed that plan for a year. Though Kubiak certainly knows how to employ receiving tight ends, no matter the coordinator, Pitta was destined to be a true cornerstone of Baltimore's offense in 2014.
Now that he's healthy, Pitta can go back to building the chemistry with Flacco that made him the quarterback's favorite target and bring a dimension to the Ravens passing game that the team sorely lacked in his absence last season.