Owen Daniels and the Ravens: A match made in heaven

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“We’ve been fortunate at that position,” Kubiak said. “Our scouting department has done a good job of bringing in versatile guys, and (tight ends coach Brian) Pariani has done a really good job working with them. We don’t have the big guy (a blocking specialist) and a receiving guy. They all look kind of the same, which helps us. It keeps the field balanced.”

The above quote came after the first two weeks of the 2013 NFL season, after the Texans began the season 2-0 and both Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham had two or more touchdowns a piece.  2013 was a very disappointing season for the Texans, however their expectations at the outset were as high as ever.  Their roster should have never reeled off fourteen straight losses, but they did, and as a result, Gary Kubiak — and his tight end coach, Brian Pariani — are now Baltimore Ravens.

No matter who is to blame for their tumultuous season, the end result will surely benefit Baltimore.  A hallmark of a Kubiak offense is efficient passing, and that is very dependent on the output from the tight end position.  Almost always using two tight end formations, Kubiak loves to threaten downfield with his receivers on the outside, while giving his tight ends the options of roaming underneath.  This holds especially true of the red zone, where tight ends really shine in Kubiak’s offense.

In this feature on the Texans’ redzone offense leading into the 2013 season, the writer tracked all of Houston’s 2012 redzone opportunities.  The results were pretty interesting.  Aside from Arian Foster running the ball nearly 70% of the time, when the team passed, it was largely focused on the tight end position.  Of 93 redzone pass attempts for Matt Schaub in 2012, 41 of them were intended for tight ends.  For contrast, there were 40 attempts meant for wide receivers, and 12 for running backs.  Of those 41 targets for tight ends, 22 of them were meant for Owen Daniels, and he turned them into nine receptions and three touchdowns.

In Kubiak’s offense, the two tight ends are deployed together, however they are used differently.  In Owen Daniels’ career, he operated out of the first tight end slot in Kubiak’s offense, and that tight end is motioned all around the field in an effort to create the best matchup on the opposite side of the line.  Required to block less and catch more passes, this is the tight end slot where the bulk of the receptions and yards come from.  This is the slot that Dennis Pitta will occupy in the offense, and that role is very well suited for Pitta, whose athleticism allows him to stretch the field and provide a reliable target.

The second tight end in the Kubiak offense is more of an in-line player, that is, they are often lined up next to a tackle and used as more of a blocker.  However, that doesn’t mean that they don’t utilize them in the passing game, as it is quite the contrary.  That tight end is more responsible for reading the defense and slipping underneath coverages after blocking — especially in the redzone, where Kubiak loves to utilize big targets to exploit mismatches.  In fact, he will often attempt to direct attention to his receivers on the outside, only to slip his tight ends out into the flat for an easy touchdown.

So, that is why adding a tight end of Daniels’ caliber to an offense that he is already familiar with is such a great move.  With all of the experience in Kubiak’s offense, not only can Daniels come in and contribute right away, but he can help assuage the transition for teammates.  In an offense that relies so heavily on the production from the tight end position, the Ravens essentially just brought in the most productive in the offense’s history.  And it was just last year that pundits were talking about how Owen Daniels is entering his prime.  In 2012, Daniels had the third most yards of his career as well as the most touchdowns, illustrating that the Ravens are getting much more than just an aging veteran.  However, after breaking his fibula last year, Daniels only played in five games and found himself in free agency with the coaching change in Houston.

What makes Daniels so good?  Well, he is a former quarterback who switched over to tight end at the University of Wisconsin (in fact, he was actually the Texans emergency quarterback).  This allows Daniels to see the field from a much wider perspective, and one of the things that Matt Schaub said he liked most about playing with Daniels was his understanding of the game.  While some tight ends might only understand their routes, Daniels is a player who evaluates the defense like a quarterback, looking for holes and opportunities for exploitation.  This is coupled with a very savvy route tree, and by almost all accounts, Daniels thrives at getting separation in short space coming out of his breaks.  And when the ball is coming his way, Daniels is one of the more sure-handed targets in the league.  All of this provides Joe Flacco with just the type of target that he sorely lacked last season, and gives the Ravens one more player who can move the chains on third down or score in the redzone.

Here is an excerpt from the above article (with Daniels in his apparent prime) that features some quotes from Matt Schaub about his former go-to tight end:

Even going into his eighth NFL season, coming off his second Pro Bowl, the man known in Houston as OD has “a great burst — a suddenness in and out of his cuts,” said the quarterback. “He knows how to work a defender, to maintain leverage on his route, to get where he can be the most open.” Schaub also appreciates Daniels’ “exceptional” hands, his ability to hold onto the ball “even with guys hanging on him.” Indeed, Daniels hasn’t fumbled since 2009; hasn’t lost a fumble since ’08.

And best of all, it allows Kubiak’s offense to hit the ground running.  Rather than deal with the growing pains of an outside tight end, he is able to plug Daniels right into his scheme and know that he not only understands his assignment, but also how the offense should operate as a whole.  He will be able to tutor Pitta on how to best utilize his role in the scheme, and in the event that the Ravens draft a tight end (which is still very likely, though probably in the later rounds), he can mentor that youngster into a thriving role.  Not to mention it rounds out Joe Flacco’s receiving core, leaving really only one hole in the group (if you even want to call it that) for a tall, rangy wide receiver.

And for one more firsthand account of Daniels’ ability and fit, here is what former Houston offensive tackle, Eric Winston, had to say about the Ravens’ most recent addition:

I think Owen’s going to be a great fit there since he already has so much knowledge of Gary Kubiak’s offense and they ask a lot from their tight ends.  He’s going to be invaluable to the other guys, and he’s a really, really good tight end. Him and Pitta, that’s going to be a really hard combination to defend. Gary is really good at getting combinations, and it’s tough for defenses to match up against Owen.

Owen’s a pro’s pro. He has a cerebral mind for the game and is a smart guy. He’s a worker. He stays in great shape. He’s always working out and is a great route runner. Signing him was a no-brainer for the Ravens. They’re going to be in so many two-tight end and three-tight end sets. It’s going to be really tough for defenses, especially linebackers, to stop those athletic tight ends downfield. Are you going to line up in base or nickel [coverage] against them? It’s kind of pick your poison.

As you can see, the addition of Daniels could be the cherry on top of a very successful offseason for the Ravens thus far.  His deal is only for one year, and it is likely for a cap number much lower than the $4.5 million he was set to earn in Houston.  In all, Owen Daniels gives the Ravens a contributor on the field, in the locker room, the weight room, and the film room.  His knowledge and experience will be tantamount to the Ravens’ transition into Gary Kubiak’s zone offense, and you can expect to see plenty of balls headed Daniels’ and Pitta’s way this coming season.

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