Out of kindness, you could say he wasn’t guaranteed a job when the Ravens arrived at training camp in late July. In truth, Josh Oliver wasn’t even part of the conversations predicting the final players would make the team’s 53-man roster.
“No one was talking about him; you hadn’t spoken much of him, had you? coach John Harbaugh told a group of media last week. Heads were shaking in response.
On tight end, the Ravens had an All-Pro starter in Mark Andrews, a recovering stalwart in Nick Boyle, two fourth-round picks in Charlie Kolar and Isaiah Likely and a hybrid guard in Patrick Ricard. What job could be left for Oliver, a guy who had caught a dozen NFL assists since being a third-round pick in 2019?
Oliver didn’t see it that way.
“Josh just won a job; he earned a roster spot in training camp,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. “It certainly wasn’t a sure thing, and he just won it. For him to not be in the team for us would have been ridiculous with the way he was improving. … He just made us put it on in the team, and he keeps playing us against him.
The 25-year-old Oliver has turned into one of the main blockers in Roman’s vaunted running attack. He will return to the site of his early NFL frustrations when the Ravens face the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team that drafted and then traded him, on Sunday.
“It was tough,” he said of those two injury-scarred years. “It helped me get to where I am at this point, but there were definitely some hurdles that I had to overcome. … I feel like I’ve overcome it and grown from it. You learn not to take anything for granted.
Any successful NFL team will feature a few heroes no one saw coming.
Safety Geno Stone started the summer on the Ravens’ roster bubble. If the 2020 seventh-round pick were to make the final 53, it would be because of his special teams acumen. No one imagined him taking snaps of incumbent starter Chuck Clark, free agent addition Marcus Williams or first-round pick Kyle Hamilton. But Williams dislocated his wrist in Week 5 and Stone, with his solid knowledge of the defensive playbook, stepped in as a starter at fullback. He has the third-highest level of coverage of any 11-week NFL safety, according to Pro Football Focus.
When the Ravens signed wide receiver Demarcus Robinson to the Las Vegas Raiders pile in August, most observers thought he would make the team, but only as veteran insurance behind the No. 1 Rashod Bateman and 2020 third-round pick Devin Duvernay. Now that Bateman is out for the season with a foot injury, Robinson has become quarterback Lamar Jackson’s favorite outside target. He caught all nine passes thrown for 128 yards in the Ravens’ Week 11 win over the Carolina Panthers and was the league’s most productive wide receiver, according to the DYAR Football Outsiders rankings.
Of all these unsung heroes, however, none was less sung about than Oliver.
With his chiseled 6-foot-5, 259-pound frame and 4.6-second time in the 40-yard dash, he looks the part as much as anyone in the Ravens locker room. He comes from a remarkable athletic family that includes former NFL defensive back Clarence Oliver and former major league starting pitcher Darren Oliver. He broke out as a senior at San Jose State despite frequent double teams, and the Jaguars considered a red-zone monster when they used a high third-round pick to nab him.
But a hamstring injury cost him the first six games of his freshman year, and a broken foot cost him the entire 2020 season. The Jaguars weren’t brimming with star power at the tight end, but they essentially dumped Oliver in March 2021, trading him to the Ravens for a conditional seventh-round pick.
At his new home, coaches talked about him more in terms of potential production than expected: what could he add to an offense if he used all those physical tools? “It’s just going to come down to…He’s learning, he hasn’t played a lot of football in the NFL, but he’s a talented guy,” Harbaugh said at the start of Oliver’s first training camp with the Ravens. . He made the roster and played 14 games, but his nine catches and inconsistent blocking didn’t make for a slam-dunk case to stay on the team in 2022.
“Here’s a guy, [after] three years in the league for various reasons, he hadn’t quite gotten over the hump yet,” Harbaugh said.
Oliver looked his NFL mortality in the face — “It’s always in the back of your head, but you also feel the urgency of it,” he said — and bulldozed that hump into himself. transforming into a player no one expected when he was a draft prospect: a block-first destroyer.
The delight in the voices of teammates and coaches as they describe his transformation speaks to Oliver’s embrace of the dirtier arts of football.
“As for his blocking, he’s improved so much over the past year, probably as much as any player I’ve worked with for over a year,” Roman said. “It’s all to his credit. I really think the teams that are preparing to play us in the league, they’re probably… I can imagine them looking at us and looking at him and going, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’
Tight ends coach George Godsey gushed after watching Oliver throw his body at New Orleans Saints edge rushers Cam Jordan and Marcus Davenport in Week 9: ‘I think he’s coming out there smashing the caucus and puts his hand in the dirt. This guy is a physical player there.
Oliver worked his way into the lineup in the role that Boyle possessed. He’s played at least 30% of the team’s attacking snaps in every game this season, acting as a run blocker in around 62% of them, according to Pro Football Focus. He ranks as the sixth-best run blocker among all tight ends, per PFF. His seven catches on 12 targets won’t make your eyes pop, but that’s not what the Ravens are asking of him.
“Josh Oliver hasn’t been talked about much before the season,” Andrews said. “And then you see how well he plays, his body, everything he does. Hats off to him; he’s been a big part of this attack, a big part of what we do. It’s playing and playing him, just mutilating guys.
Oliver cited Boyle as his role model for improving as a blocker. “Just watching him every day, seeing him work his craft, really helped me,” he said. “First of all, it starts with attitude. Afterwards, it’s technique and desire.
With Oliver, Likely, Boyle and possibly Kolar (who has yet to play due to sports hernia surgery) in the mix, Andrews described the Ravens’ tight play as “scary”.
“For [Josh] winning the playing time he has in this room says even more, I think,” Harbaugh said.
“I think in a lot of ways this season was what I wanted it to be,” Oliver said. “I’m finally able to be a factor in how I want to be, and I feel like it’s just getting started.”
Ravens at Jaguars
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: chs. 13, 9
Radio: 97.9FM, 101.5FM, 1090AM
Line: Ravens by 4