Back in early July, it seemed plausible that the Ravens would keep four tight ends on the 53-man roster. Mark Andrews was returning as the headliner, with Nick Boyle his capable, bulldozing sidekick. The Ravens had traded away Hayden Hurst, but veteran Jerrell Adams was in camp, as was former practice squad tight end Charles Scarff, and the Ravens were high enough on undrafted rookies Jacob Breeland of Oregon and Eli Wolf of Georgia that head coach John Harbaugh speculated both could make the team.
Tight ends have always played a critical role in offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s system, so it seemed likely that the roster would feature at least three tight ends.
Fast forward to Week 11, and the ailing Ravens (6-3) have exactly one tight end on the 53-man roster, Andrews, with three on the practice squad and a lot of questions about how they move forward in the wake of Boyle’s season-ending knee injury at New England Nov. 15.
And the trade of Hurst, which many observers have linked to early-season struggles of this offense, has taken on new significance.
Adams and Scarff were released in the final September cutdown, and the two undrafted rookies never hit the field; Breeland’s knee injury did not heal as the Ravens had hoped during the COVID-interrupted offseason, so he remains on the non-football-injury list.
Wolf, meanwhile, has been hurt for much of his first pro season. He missed extensive time in training camp, was released and brought back to the practice squad but landed on injured reserve in late October.
Other than Andrews, the only healthy tight ends in the organization are Sean Culkin, Xavier Grimble and Luke Willson, a trio of veterans signed to the practice squad this season. Willson signed Nov. 17 after clearing the league’s COVID protocols. At least one of them figures to be added to the game day roster for the Nov. 22 matchup against the Tennessee Titans.
Andrews remains one of the Ravens’ top offensive weapons, but emblematic of a scuffling offense, his production is down significantly from a year ago. Andrews, who has frequently drawn double-team attention, has 33 catches for 358 yards and three touchdowns. Throughout the past four games Andrews has averaged about four catches for 34 yards, with no touchdowns since Week 5.
Boyle (14-113, one touchdown) doesn’t have the passing-game production, but it’s hard to overestimate his importance in the Ravens’ run-first offense. Whether lining up as an in-line tight end or as a hybrid H-back in a backfield formation, Ravens running backs frequently follow the blocking of the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Boyle.
So who takes on that role now?
Fullback Patrick Ricard, who has filled the de facto third tight role all season, could be asked to do more. Here is a closer look at the three veterans on the practice squad:
Sean Culkin — Originally undrafted out of Missouri, Culkin (6-foot-5, 255) spent three seasons with the Chargers, primarily as a blocking tight end. He has just two career receptions and averaged about 17 snaps a game in 17 career games with the Chargers. Culkin’s 2019 season was cut short after four games because of a torn Achilles tendon. The Ravens signed him to the practice squad in September.
For what it’s worth, Culkin, 27, has frequently been one of the Ravens’ four weekly practice-squad protections and was again this week.
Xavier Grimble — Ravens fans might remember that Grimble caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to open the scoring in the Steelers’ epic 31-27 win against the Ravens on Christmas night in 2016. Grimble, 28, played four seasons for the Steelers, appearing in 47 games, with 23 catches for 239 yards and three touchdowns.
Grimble (6-foot-4, 261), who was a high school teammate of Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley in Las Vegas, was originally signed by the New York Giants as an undrafted rookie in 2014 but did not make the team out of training camp, then was in camp with the San Francisco 49ers the following summer. Grimble was with the Indianapolis Colts this summer before being released in the final cutdown.
Luke Willson — Willson officially signed with the Ravens this week, a process that had actually begun before Boyle’s injury. Willson, 30, spent seven of his eight seasons with the Seattle Seahawks, who drafted him out of Rice in the fifth round in 2013. Willson (6-foot-5, 254) averaged about 15 catches a season during his first seven years. He was released by the Seahawks earlier this month and did not have a catch in five games this year.
“We like Luke. He’s a guy our personnel department knows real well,” Harbaugh said Nov. 18 in discussing Willson’s signing, adding that he is an “experienced player. … It’s good to have a guy that’s been out there before and knows how to play, and we’ll just have to see how he fits in to what we’re doing.”
In order for any of them to play against the Titans Nov. 22, they will need to be added to the game day roster — either via a promotion to the 53-man roster, which still has two open roster spots, or via a weekly practice squad callup — by Nov. 21 at 4 p.m.
Don’t expect the Ravens to announce any such move until then, as Harbaugh likes to keep such moves close to the vest.
“We’ll just have to see how the week of practice goes,” he said.