For the first time since Dennis Pitta went down with a hip injury last week, the Ravens held an open-to-the-media practice Thursday at the Under Armour Performance Center. It was evident things are going to be changing at tight end.
Nick Boyle and Crockett Gillmore ran with the starters, made catches and blocked. Those two and a pair of other players coming back from injuries, Maxx Williams and Benjamin Watson, eventually will compete for snaps in 2017.
Right now, it's not clear how things will play out. One could emerge as a clear-cut starter, or all four might carve out roles.
Watson is a veteran with 434 receptions since 2004. Williams, a former second-round draft pick, is known for his hands. Gillmore and Boyle have contributed a handful of big plays. Another young tight end, Darren Waller, caught a pair of touchdown passes in 2016.
Regardless of who plays, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh sounded optimistic Thursday about the team's ability to overcome the loss of Pitta, who caught 86 passes in 2016, setting a franchise record for receptions in a season by a tight end.
Asked if there's enough talent at tight end, Harbaugh said, "Absolutely."
"You want to have as many good players as you can, and that's why you don't want to lose anyone. By the same token, we're deep there. Maxx has to get back. Ben has to get back. The other two guys have to keep getting better. But we have four really good players there. We'll just work from there."
Boyle, a third-year player, acknowledged Thursday that he's getting more practice-field opportunities now that Pitta is out.
"Unfortunately, it's not the way I want it to happen. It's really sad. I feel really bad for Dennis. He's been a great friend and teammate," Boyle said. "But it's out of your control that it will give you more opportunities to catch the ball, run, block, whatever they want."
Boyle showed flashes of promise in his first two years, but he was suspended twice for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing drugs, slowing his progress. But it appears his star is rising. The coaches believe his rugged style meshes well with the "downhill" running game being installed by Greg Roman, the team's new senior offensive assistant.
Harbaugh has acknowledged that Boyle might be used not only as a tight end, but also as a lead blocker out of the backfield – the fullback role.
"I think I can do it all, which is great," Boyle said. "I feel I can play in the backfield, go in motion, play on the line … I can do it all. Whatever they ask me to do, I'll go do, whether it's block or run routes."
As for his ability to run routes and catch passes, Boyle said he has experienced "night and day" improvement since his pro career began.
"But there's still a lot to work on, which is apparent every day," he said.
With Pitta gone and Watson and Williams still sidelined, Boyle and Gillmore both caught a slew of passes Thursday. Boyle agreed with Harbaugh's big-picture assessment that, regardless of what happens, the talent is there at tight end.
"It's a great group of guys, a really tight-knit group. Everyone gets along. Everyone is a really good player and brings a different style," he said. "What's really good is we can learn from each other, whether it's as a route runner or a pass blocker. A great group. I'm looking forward to going to training camp with them."