Ravens tight end Crockett Gillmore turned some heads last summer when he confidently declared that Baltimore had the best tight end group in the NFL.
Significant injuries to three of the team's tight ends kept the Ravens from getting a true gauge on how good they could have been last year, but count new Tight Ends Coach Greg Roman among those with high expectations for the group in 2017.
"It's a very, very interesting group," Roman said. "There's depth and there's width to it. A lot of different skillsets."
Roman said he's already had a chance to meet some of the tight ends who have been working out at the team's practice facility in Owing Mills during the offseason, he's building an understanding of their abilities by diving into film study.
Baltimore's tight ends class is a mix of young and old. Dennis Pitta is the leader of the pack and coming off a career season in which he led all NFL tight ends with 86 receptions for 729 yards and two touchdowns.
The Ravens also have fellow veteran Benjamin Watson, who missed all of last season after tearing his Achilles in the preseason. Watson, 36, put up 825 receiving yards and six touchdowns in 2015 with the New Orleans Saints, which led to him signing a two-year deal in Baltimore.
Beyond Pitta and Watson, the Ravens still have Gillmore, Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle and Darren Waller all under their rookie contracts]. Injuries limited Gillmore's production last year, but he said during Super Bowl week that Baltimore's other tight ends are "going to enjoy the bench" now that he's healthy again.
Williams, Boyle and Waller are all young players with high upside, but Williams has to overcome a knee injury that ended his 2016 season. Boyle and Waller have both shown potential, but they have also been suspended, so they can't afford any more setbacks.
"It's goings to be really interesting to see how we can deploy these guys because a lot of them can do a lot of different things," Roman said. "I think some of these guys can really multitask."
The tight end spot is of particular importance because it plays a part in both the run and pass game. The Ravens are focused on getting back to a balanced offense rather than the pass-heavy approach they used last season, and the tight ends are critical in that shift.
Having tight ends that can effectively block in the run game and also create mismatches in the pass game is an asset, and Roman hinted that the Ravens will get creative in how they use their players.
"They could line up anywhere," Roman said. "Some of them could be in the backfield, on the line of scrimmage, split out – pretty multi-dimensional group. The thing that really struck me is that this group really seems like it's got a gritty, tough, no-nonsense mentality. I think you can do a lot with a group like that."
All six tight ends have game experience and high upside. The depth of the group gives the Ravens contingencies if they get hit hard with injuries again, but competition will be fierce just to make the team out of training camp if everyone stays healthy.
"It's going to be very interesting and exciting to see how this group plays itself out because I think they can all do certain things really well," Roman said. "And obviously our goal every day is to improve, so we're going to try to improve everything we do with the tight end position."