OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — The Baltimore Ravens were preparing for the 2018 NFL draft when coach John Harbaugh began studying tape of a pretty good tight end at Oklahoma by the name of Mark Andrews.
"He always got open. He always made catches. He had a knack," Harbaugh recalled. "You're like, 'Is he going to be able to get that open and make those plays in the NFL?'"
The answer: Undoubtedly, yes.
Following a modest rookie season, Andrews led the Ravens this year with 64 catches, 852 yards receiving and 10 touchdown receptions. He also earned an invitation to the Pro Bowl and is one big reason why Baltimore (14-2) will bring a 12-game winning streak into its playoff opener Saturday night against the Tennessee Titans.
Sure, the Ravens are known for their ability to run. But when dual-threat quarterback Lamar Jackson decides to throw, more often that not he will start his progression with Andrews.
"Mark does a great job of reading the defense, knowing when they're zoning," Jackson said. "He finds a way to get open. I just call it street ball."
Andrews was targeted 98 times this season, 27 more than runner-up Marquise Brown and at least twice as often as anyone else. In addition, his 10 TD catches were only one fewer than the combined total of everyone else on the squad.
Andrews is the biggest threat among the receivers, and that's not just because of his 6-foot-5, 256-pound frame.
"The quarterback has a lot of confidence in him," Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel said Tuesday. "He's got great length, good body control, good hands, catches it in traffic and can create space with his body. It looks like the quarterback really trusts him and likes him and knows where he's going to be."
Andrews was a receiver in high school and was recruited by Oklahoma to be a wideout before making the switch early in his career with the Sooners. In his final college season, he had 62 catches for 958 yards and eight TDs to earn the John Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end.
And yet, Andrews was the second tight end drafted by the Ravens in 2018, behind Hayden Hurst. Andrews finally went in the third round, but that doesn't mean the scouts — and Harbaugh — did not appreciate his body of work.
"The truth is, I think hindsight would say that he was undervalued by the NFL world of evaluation," Harbaugh said. "But when we first did it, he was our top tight end in the rankings."
Jackson and Andrews entered the NFL together, and it didn't take a whole lot of practice for them to get on the same page — even if it wasn't precisely out of the playbook
"I would run a route maybe a little differently than how it was drawn up, and he would see it the same way and would throw it perfectly on time," Andrews said. "We've had that kind of chemistry pretty early on from the start."
Hurst and Nick Boyle give Jackson another couple options in terms of tight ends to target. But it's clear who is the No. 1 choice.
"Obviously, he likes his Pro Bowler, Mark Andrews," Titans safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "I think what makes him good is Lamar trusts him."
Vaccaro lauded Andrews for his "catch radius" — the ability to snag a ball in the immediate vicinity — along with the tight end's effort to make the catch when the ball is at its highest point.
Though Andrews has displayed soft hands downfield, he's not afraid to bang helmets on the line of scrimmage.
"I'm never going to shy away from someone. I don't fear anybody," he insisted. "A lot receiving tight ends, you look at them and they don't go into the block wanting to block. That's not who I am. I'm a guy who wants to do my job to the best of my ability. I've worked really hard at getting better at that."
Notes: RB Mark Ingram (calf) did not practice. Ingram sustained the injury on Dec. 22 at Cleveland and was expected to play Saturday night, but Harbaugh said he would not provide injury updates this week. ... Jackson turned 23 on Tuesday.
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