As Nick Boyle was carted off the field at Gillette Stadium on Sunday Night Football, the Ravens were left with the unsettling fact that just one tight end (Mark Andrews) was on the active roster and their best blocking tight end exited the field for the final time in 2020 surrounded by trainers, unable to walk off on his own.
Boyle is such a crucial part of the Ravens’ offense, a focal point unseen by many, and is considered one of, if not the best blocking tight end in the sport. In the Ravens' run-first offense, his impact cannot be overstated.
A year ago, the Ravens had a three-headed monster of Andrews, Boyle and since-traded Hayden Hurst at tight end. Now, they’ve got just one of those three for the final seven regular season games in 2020.
“Nick has been a very integral player for us,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “His understanding and knowledge of the offense, and all the adjustments, goes without saying. His attitude, toughness, and what he brought every single day really should be emulated. He’s a valuable player, and he’s going to be fine. It’s going to take him some time to get back, and he’ll be better than ever.”
Now, they have three options on the practice squad that can be called up for Sunday’s game against the Titans. It's nearly impossible for someone to make Boyle's impact, but if they call up one, or even two, they’ll be asked to make an immediate impact.
First, there’s Luke Willson, the most recent addition to the Ravens by way of the practice squad. He’s the most seasoned of the bunch and played in five games for the Seahawks this season. He didn’t register a reception or a target. The Rice product was a fifth-round pick of the Seahawks in 2013 and is certainly the most recognizable name to call up. How much Willson, 30, can impact the Ravens’ offense in such a short time remains unknown, but he’d certainly be the most interesting activation.
Then there’s two practice squad players, Xavier Grimble and Sean Culkin, who have been around for a few weeks.
Grimble, 28, played in three games for the Steelers in 2019 and has 23 career receptions. He’s been a member of six different teams, including the Ravens, and is known for his sure-handedness.
Culkin, 27, is the least experienced of the bunch and has just 18 career games under his belt. He’s played three seasons, all in Los Angeles with the Chargers, and suffered an achilles tear in Week 4 of the 2019 season. He has just two career receptions and played in 13 games in 2018 and four last year, before his injury.
It’s a near certainty the Ravens will call up one of those three tight ends to the active roster for Sunday. Perhaps they’ll call up two, as they look to replicate the magic of last season’s tight end group, when three of the team’s top five pass-catchers were tight ends.
They had one of the best tight end groups a year ago, and the Hurst trade was to give the team another draft choice and sell off from an area of surplus. With the Hurst pick they acquired, the Ravens drafted former Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins.
No one will argue he looks talented through the first part of his rookie season. But it’s clear that pick was made for 2020, in part, but more specifically the future. So while it might be a tough pill to swallow now, Dobbins' selection after the Hurst trade could very well turn out to be a savvy move for an organization that should have its running back of the future already in-house. It just won't be in Week 11.
Plus, the Ravens have rookie tight ends Eli Wolf and Jacob Breeland, who are both injured, set to join the team in 2021. Help is on the way for them at that position.
But help won’t arrive before Sunday because it's already in Baltimore. As Roman said, the Ravens will look to forge a new identity with Boyle (and others) injured. What that looks like, and whether it's Willson, Culkin or Grimble — or a combination of the three — won’t be known until Sunday.