OWINGS MILLS, MD — On August 7, the NFL reinstated Ravens tight end Darren Waller after the 25-year-old served a year-long suspension for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. It marked the second suspension for Waller since the Ravens drafted him in the sixth round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of Georgia Tech.
Waller hit the practice field for the first time on Saturday, joining a crowded tight end competition featuring rookies Hayden Hurst and Mark Andrews, and fourth-year veterans Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle, and Vince Mayle. Baltimore also has undrafted rookie tight end Nick Keizer of Grand Valley State on their roster.
Although Waller has flashed in limited action, he’s had problems staying on the field. The aforementioned year-long suspension was the second time that the NFL took action against him in a calendar year. After Waller’s first suspension that occurred during the 2016 season, he acknowledged that he’s a marijuana user. Even though several NFL players use marijuana and have campaigned for the league to allow players to use it, it’s still illegal in many states and it’s still on the NFL’s list on banned substances.
Over the next few weeks, Waller will need an impressive string of practices for the Ravens to consider using a roster spot on him. The tight end position is one of the key position battles in camp to this point. With Hurst and Andrews being early-to-mid-round picks, they will definitely make the roster and get their chances to make plays.
Waller is not the only tight end on the roster who has struggled to stay on the field. Williams, who underwent a severe knee procedure during the 2016 season, has never made it through 16 games. He did flash in the Hall-of-Fame game against the Bears, but then missed last Thursday’s preseason game against the Rams for an undisclosed reason. Williams returned to practice on Monday, but he’s continuing to prove that his health is still a red flag.
Boyle will make the roster. He’s the best blocker on the team and only missed one game last season. He’s also served two suspensions, but he’s seemingly put his substance problems behind him. Mayle is a question mark. He will likely need to outperform Waller in practice for the Ravens to consider keeping him.
After Waller returned to the practice field, head coach John Harbaugh made it clear that Waller missing all of this time is not okay.
“He needs to be here,” Harbaugh said. “I have not seen the guy for a year. I love him, he’s a great guy, talented guy, and all that, but where’s he been? You gotta be here. You don’t just come waltzing in and all of the sudden you’re the starting tight end, you have to prove it, you have to do some things for us. You have to make plays. I love him, but like I told him, I’m going to be the hardest guy on him of anybody. I’m going to be on him every single day, because he’s got a lot to prove.”
Tight end is not the only crowded position on the roster for the Ravens. Wide receiver, offensive line, outside linebacker, and cornerback are all loaded with talent and could result in some big names getting cut and finding new homes elsewhere. The Ravens preseason roster is stacked this year, much more than it has been in recent seasons.
Predicting the 53-man roster is almost impossible right now. No matter how you slice it, there will be a handful of starting-caliber NFL players, possibly even some early-round draft picks of previous seasons, who will be cut because the Ravens have no room for them.
Did I mention that there’s also a good chance that the Ravens will keep three quarterbacks on the roster, something that they have not done since Joe Flacco‘s rookie season?
When it comes to the tight ends, I think the Ravens end up keeping four. If there weren’t two rookies included in the group, I would feel confident saying that the Ravens keep three. Rookies often endure growing pains in the NFL, and both Hurst and Andrews have already dealt with minor injuries. With that being said, keeping four tight ends seems like the smart thing to do this season.
With Hurst, Andrews, and Boyle as my locks to make the roster, the final tight end slot boils down to Williams and Waller. Statistically, Williams is the clear favorite. He’s compiled 47 receptions for 354 yards and two touchdowns over three seasons, compared to Waller’s 12 receptions, 103 yards, and two touchdowns in two seasons.
This is a tough call. Both Williams and Waller have not been available much, but for different reasons. Williams was the higher draft pick, but Waller made a position change from wide receiver to tight end before the 2016 season, something that’s not easy and often gets overlooked. Williams has better stats, but Waller has better athleticism. Waller’s durability beats out that of Williams, who may never reach full speed again after his knee procedure.
No matter who makes the Ravens’ 53-man roster and who ends up getting cut, some talented players will hit the market. And after the waivers clear, some players could even return to the Ravens on the practice squad. The Ravens already had enough on their plate this summer in terms of putting the roster together, but Waller’s return from suspension throws another wrench into the fire.
Image Credit: Baltimore Sun