In the coming days, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of each position, focusing on who will be in the thick of the competition come training camp. Today, the tight ends take the spotlight.
At different points during this offseason, the Ravens had a former collegiate basketball player, a former quarterback, a defensive end and an offensive tackle lining up at tight end. Heading into training camp, head coach John Harbaugh is hoping to welcome a more stable unit to the field.
From the first week of minicamp, injuries have worked their way through the position group, and leader Todd Heap, who only played in six games last season because of a pesky hamstring, might be the healthiest.
At least Heap didn't require surgery, something that Daniel Wilcox has been trying to recover from since he underwent a procedure on his left foot in January.
After Wilcox, there was Quinn Sypniewski, who was eager to build on a solid 2007 that saw him place fourth on the team with 34 receptions (246 yards and one touchdown). But the big tight end out of Colorado blew out his knee in the Ravens' first minicamp and was shelved for the season.
Moving down the depth chart, Lee Vickers was sidelined with hamstring and hand injuries, Jake Nordin moved to fullback and rookie free agent Scott Kuhn broke his thumb.
That opened the door for Western Michigan basketball star Joe Reitz, former Florida State quarterback Xavier Lee, Ravens defensive end Edgar Jones and tackle Mike Kracalik to all take snaps at tight end.
Jones even looked like a natural, catching his share of passes in the flat.
"We're probably in a tryout-type of a mode right now with a lot of these young guys," Harbaugh said at the time. "We have a developmental guy who played basketball in college, a couple of small-school guys who maybe have a chance to develop at some point in time.**
Despite such slim pickings at the position, Harbaugh is confident that a long break before training camp can provide what's most important for his players: recovery.
"We're concerned about every position, but when you've got guys who are hurt right now who can't practice, it becomes a bigger concern," said the coach. "We need to get them healthy."**
"And we've got to bring Dan [Wilcox] along and bring [Todd] Heap along – they're going to be our two guys – and we've got to get them healthy."
Baltimore has been known as a haven for tight ends ever since Heap supplanted NFL record-setter Shannon Sharpe in 2002. That year marked Sharpe's retirement and Heap's first Pro Bowl campaign.
The Ravens think they can wring production out of their current unit, but before success can be measured on the field, health must be checked off the to-do list.
Here is a breakdown of the tight ends on the Ravens' roster:
2007:Starting all six games in which he played, Heap was on and off the field all season before a hamstring injury finally landed him on Injured Reserve in Week 17. He did manage to catch 23 passes for 239 yards and a score, impressive considering he missed the majority of two other contests.
Forecast:The two-time Pro Bowler is key for the Ravens' offense. During minicamps, Heap's hamstring did not seem to hamper him, as he was fluid in his routes and seemed to get off the ball quickly. But, Heap has been looking forward to some down time to rest before reporting to training camp.
2007:Wilcox suffered a laundry list of ailments, from the ankle he injured in the season opener, to the foot injury that ended up needing surgery, to the hamstring that kept him out of the final two contests. Still, his red-zone effectiveness showed when he hauled in a touchdown pass against the New England Patriots, one of his six catches the entire year.
Forecast:The Appalachian State alumnus has been at team headquarters nearly every day this offseason rehabbing with the training staff. While he never took part in any on-field drills, Wilcox did regularly jog routes and serve as a target for the quarterbacks. He expects to be 100 percent by the time he heads to Westminster, Md.
2007:With Heap and Wilcox out, Sypniewski saw action in 15 games, missing one with a concussion. He started nine contests and was a revelation in the passing game, hauling in 34 balls for 246 yards and a score. Fifteen of those catches were for first downs.
Forecast:Sypniewski will miss the entire 2008 campaign with a knee injury.
2007:Vickers was another player that benefited from added playing time. Playing in eight games, he was mainly a blocking tight end, using his 275-pound frame as an asset in the running attack.
Forecast:A roster spot for Vickers will be determined by how healthy he can get by training camp. But, he is athletic and tough as a converted defensive end, something the Ravens always covet.
2007:During a four-year career at Louisville, Kuhn was primarily used as a blocking tight end, but he did manage a personal-best 24 receptions for 245 yards and four touchdowns as a senior.
Forecast:Joining the Ravens as an undrafted free agent will make it difficult for Kuhn to move up the ranks, especially considering his injury status. With prototypical size (6-foot-6, 257 pounds), Kuhn could work his way into a coveted practice squad spot if he has a solid preseason.