A 300-pound former defensive lineman has become an offensive playmaker for the Ravens

On the first play of the second half, with the game tied at 10, Ricard caught a pass in the flat and crushed a defender upfield for 11 yards. A few plays later, he made a shoestring catch over the middle. A few plays after that, he fully extended for a third-down catch to set up a first-and goal. On the next play, he fulfilled his main job description, bulldozing a path for running back J.K. Dobbins for a four-yard go-ahead touchdown.

“For me to do that on a national stage, in a playoff game, I think people are starting to recognize more what I’ve been doing here,” Ricard said in an interview this week.

By the end of the Ravens’ 20-13 win, no skill-position player on the team’s roster — aside from star quarterback Lamar Jackson — had played more snaps than Ricard, a performance that underscored the importance of his expanded role as Baltimore prepares for Saturday night’s divisional round playoff game against the Buffalo Bills.

“It felt great to contribute to the offense, to the team in a must-win game,” Ricard said. “I wasn’t expecting to get all of those passes, because my role here is to be a physical force on offense. … If the ball comes my way, I’ll make plays.”

The plays Ricard made against the Titans, specifically the three pass receptions on one drive after catching just nine passes during the regular season — encapsulated the evolution of one of the league’s rarest athletes at a position that has largely disappeared during the proliferation of pass-happy, spread offenses in the NFL over the past decade.

Yet even as a handful of the league’s top teams still deploy fullbacks, Ricard has transcended the traditional definitions of the position — with the weight of a lineman and the athleticism of a tight end, he has become a natural fit for the Ravens’ run-heavy offense, plowing open lanes for Jackson and the team’s stable of running backs.

Ricard’s role has grown even more important after one of the team’s top blocking tight ends, Nick Boyle, suffered a season-ending knee injury in November. That has forced the Ravens to line up Ricard at multiple positions — in the backfield and at the Y-tight end spot, which is an in-line blocking position next to an offensive tackle. His ability as a pass-catcher, while not his first priority, has surpassed the original expectations of the Ravens coaching staff, which assigned him to take on fullback duties when he arrived as an undrafted defensive tackle from Maine in 2017.

“It’s hard for a 300-pound guy to come off the ball, come downhill and sort his way up to a linebacker on a lead play. We could see he could do that right away,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. “But then to see all the other things: the motions, the shifts, the pulls, that stuff was pretty remarkable, just from an athletic standpoint. Then the routes — catch the ball and turning up field, that’s probably something that, no, we probably didn’t envision that part of it.”

Ricard couldn’t have envisioned this path either, even though he had played some tight end and fullback in a Wing-T offense at David Prouty High School in Spencer, Mass., about an hour west of Boston. He had not received any college interest throughout his prep career, but he had developed a tireless work ethic through his mother, a labor-and-delivery nurse, and his father, a thermal processing plant manager who built the family’s home himself.

Ricard had just one Division I scholarship offer, and when he arrived at around 230 pounds during his freshman year, he was redshirted. Maine’s coaches discussed playing him at tight end, but they had a more pressing need along the defensive line, where Ricard eventually developed into one of the program’s best players. He was obsessive about lifting weights, according to former Maine Coach Jack Cosgrove, and as his body grew into its eventual 311-pound frame, so did his confidence to mete out punishment.

“I think the weight room has allowed him to have that sense of: ‘I can be more violent than you are,’” Cosgrove said. “That confidence and boldness that is so evident when he’s out there playing — that confidence to catch the ball and the boldness to run over a linebacker.”

A week into his first OTAs with Baltimore, Ricard was approached in the hallway of the team’s facility by offensive coordinator Greg Roman and asked if he would try fullback — in addition to continue playing defensive line.

“I was going to do anything they wanted me to do to make this team. I didn’t care what it was,” Ricard recalled.

Ricard began developing into one of the league’s most versatile players and a respected presence in the locker room, but his future with the team was uncertain in December 2018 when several racist and homophobic tweets he had written as a teenager surfaced before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs. He apologized in a team meeting, calling the tweets “inappropriate and inexcusable.” The Ravens ultimately kept Ricard.

“Everybody knew the person I was and that that was not me at all. Everybody had my back and everybody was very supportive,” Ricard said. “It made me love this organization even more. … I am definitely grateful for that.”

Ricard re-signed with the team on a two-year extension in December of 2019, as he continued to develop a niche role on both sides of the ball. He became the first player in a decade to play over 100 snaps on both offense and defense in the same season — he recorded 342 snaps on offense, 140 on defense and 102 on special teams — and he made the Pro Bowl as a fullback.

He has continued to grow in that role under the tutelage of Roman and by studying some of the league’s top fullbacks, including former New England Patriot James Devlin and current San Francisco 49er Kyle Juszczyk. his former coaches marveled at how he was helping lead the next breed of the position in today’s pass-happy NFL.

“I think he’s bringing back the position, I really do. And it’s a different position,” said Cosgrove, who is now the head coach at Colby College in Maine. “The Ravens believe in the fullback. … Your fullback has to fit in there with your O-line, because sometimes they’re being asked to block a guy who is 290, 300 [pounds] himself. This isn’t a fullback leading up on a 240-pound linebacker. Those days are probably gone. The guys I’m seeing at that position are big, big, athletic young men.”

Harbaugh knew early on that converting Ricard would pay off because of his physicality as a blocker, but he soon saw glimpses of Ricard’s full skill set. During an inter-squad practice session with the Rams in training camp in 2018, Harbaugh said at one point former Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips told his defensive linemen to not cover Ricard on passes. When the teams played an actual preseason game that month, he caught a touchdown.

“He can surprise you,” Harbaugh said. “He’s kind of freakish that way as an athlete.”

Ricard is still one of the team’s best athletes, and he remains an emergency defensive lineman, but after not taking a defensive snap this season, his days at the facility are a little less hectic. He has been able to fully devote his attention to the offense, which will again rely on him as a lead blocker and potential chess piece in the passing game against Buffalo.

“I think the biggest difference for me is just fully immersing myself in the offense, and being in meeting rooms 100 percent of the time,” he said. “I was able to really learn as much as I can and apply it on the fly, and I think that’s what everyone is seeing now.”

Source: WP