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Trust Talent Time

Ed Dickson: Evolving As Tight End And A Raven, Too

The way a tight end, like any other position in football, is used has certainly evolved.

 

Two decades ago, the run-and-shoot scheme was meant to continue to feed coaches’ need — and the fans’ desire, for that matter — to have high-scoring, explosive offenses after San Diego’s “Air Coryell” attack and the Washington Redskins’ big-play propensity, which John Riggins’ running set up, had gone by the wayside.

In the run-and-shoot, no tight end was necessary. Many observers pointed to the newfangled scheme as the harbinger of the eventual demise of a position that already had a rich history in the NFL in general and in Baltimore in particular, what with John Mackey’s exploits, Todd Heap’s cult following and Ozzie Newsome’s well-known resume.

As teams around the league again try to ramp up offensive production, tight ends are more involved this time.

Last year, 16 tight ends — eight in each conference — grabbed 50 or more receptions. Five of them led their teams in catches and one, New England’s Rob Gronkowski, not only set a record for the position by hauling in 17 touchdowns, but led the league in that category as well.

Even with Heap gone and Shannon Sharpe’s Super Bowl-bred swagger having departed Charm City, the Baltimore tight end is alive and well.

Whenever quarterback Joe Flacco needs a two-minute target, he will look to the left and find Ed Dickson in the flat. If a field-stretching play is needed, there goes Dickson down the seam to haul in a high, tight-window throw. If a seal block is needed to open the door for running back Ray Rice to get around the edge, Dickson is usually at or near the point of attack.

Dickson won’t get that chance for much of the 2012 preseason, because of a sprained shoulder suffered during the preseason opener at Atlanta, but the profile of the 6-foot-4, 255-pounder has steadily risen — and his role has gradually evolved — since he was the Ravens’ 2010 third-round pick (70th overall) from the University of Oregon.

Though Dickson is only 25, he has a long-term historical perspective that makes him more than aware of how important his position is to the Ravens.

“In general, [the evolution has been] tremendous,” Dickson said. “It starts back with Ozzie. It makes the defense have to account for the tight end, and Heap taught us very well his one year he was here [with] myself and Dennis Pitta and those young guys.”

Newsome saw the field well as a tight end, and he usually sees the future with equal acumen in the front office.

He signed an undrafted inside linebacker (Jameel McClain) in 2008 to work with Ray Lewis, and got unexpected second-round draft value at outside linebacker (Courtney Upshaw) this year after losing Jarret Johnson in free agency. He also nabbed both Dickson and Pitta during the 2010 draft to replenish the tight end corps a full year before Heap was jettisoned.

When he first came into the league, Dickson was seen as a lanky, raw athletic talent who could be better used as a blocker, while Pitta would be the pass-catching specialist.

Indeed, Flacco seemed to develop a better rapport with Pitta at first, as Dickson developed his blocking skills, not to mention his knowledge of the playbook. Dickson also had a few problems holding on to passes during his first two years, most notably a late first-half drop during the AFC Championship Game in New England, which stalled the Ravens’ momentum.

Tight ends coach Wade Harman, who has overseen all the team’s greats at the position since 1999, acknowledged Dickson’s occasional errors, but also highlighted the positive traits he brought to the field.

“I think it’s more of a concentration [issue], sometimes maybe trying to take off before he gets the ball,” Harman said. “He knows that if he gets that ball in his hands and he runs, he is going to get some more yards. He made some freak catches for us last year. We know he has that ability.

“Every once in a while, you let your focus wane a little bit, and that’s what happens. So, we’re concentrating on every one, and we’re going to try to get them all.”

Despite that miscue in Foxborough, Mass., Dickson had already completed a regular season during which his catch total rose from the 11 he had in 2010 to 54 — third on the team, behind Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin — complete with five touchdowns. Three of Dickson’s scores served as the Ravens’ opening points of games, against Seattle, San Diego and Cleveland, all during the season’s second half.

The Ravens would certainly benefit from the kind of two-tight-end attack New England has with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez; the pair caught 12 passes for 153 yards as the Patriots edged Baltimore and went on to Super Bowl XLVI.

“Yeah, we look at those guys and we feel like we can be just as good as those guys,” Dickson said. “With our offense we’re running here, we’re not quite like them with the stuff that we do, but with opportunity and time, we could be just as good as those guys.

“And me and Dennis joke around all the time. We said if we scored any touchdowns in that [AFC Championship] game, we were going to mock their touchdown celebrations, and we’re very close friends with those guys, so it would have been all love.”

But the current state of affairs is no laughing matter, with Pitta and Dickson sidelined for the time being — Pitta broke his hand and could miss the regular-season opener Sept. 10 against Cincinnati. When Dickson returns, he will have to help spearhead the tight-end corps, a job Harman said he could handle for several reasons.

“[We like] his ability to get down the field and catch the ball,” Harman said. “If you put him on [defensive backs], his size and his speed are still really good. Inside, not many people can run the way he does — linebackers, safeties. He’s really learning the game; he’s understanding things.

“The ability for him to get down the field and still be able to block is tough, because you can’t really say, ‘All right, he’s just going to go out for routes, and we don’t have to worry about the run game.’ He’s doing a great job blocking for us.”

If Dickson’s upward trend — his evolution, that is — continues, he will have created a higher life form at tight end, as well as contributing to an even better team.