The Baltimore Ravens made a questionable decision during the the 2010 NFL Draft. After taking Ed Dickson out of Oregon with the 70th overall pick in the third round, they went right back to the tight end position in the fourth and selected Dennis Pitta out of BYU at 114th overall. The move surprised a lot of Ravens fans at the time, even with veteran Todd Heap entering his final year with the team. Back-to-back mid-round picks seemed like a lot to invest in what some considered a luxury position.
Fast forward nearly three years. Tight ends like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham have since assaulted the record books, and the Ravens now find themselves headed to the Super Bowl thanks in large part to the contributions of Pitta.
Pitta was prolific in college. He was a semifinalist for the Mackey Award, given every year to the nation's top tight end, after catching 62 passes for 829 yards and eight touchdowns in his last season with the Cougars. His lack of straight-line speed limited his draft value in the eyes of scouts, but he was regarded for having some of the best hands and ball skills of any prospect of his position.
According to his Ravens teammates, Pitta still looks more like wide receiver on the field than a clunky tight end stereotype. Jacoby Jones even calls him "Big Smooth." In a passing offense predicated around the deep ball, Pitta plays pivotal role keeping defenses honest, according to Torrey Smith. Via the Carroll County Times:
"He's a great player for us," Smith said of Pitta. "He handles the middle well, and he makes some big-time catches, some clutch catches. He's a playmaker. ... To have him as an outlet, especially in the middle, for [quarterback Joe Flacco] is a great fit."
Pitta came into his own this season, finishing with 669 yards and seven touchdowns off 61 receptions. Five of those scores came over a six-week stretch from Week 10 through Week 15. He has carried that hot streak into the playoffs, where he has 10 catches for 137 yards and two touchdowns.
In the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots, Pitta made one of the plays of the game, shaking free from safety Steve Gregory for a 5-yard touchdown catch that gave the Ravens the lead for good. According to offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, there isn't much the Ravens can't do with the tight end.
"We do a little bit of everything with him because of the fact that he is so versatile," Caldwell said. "Often times, we can line him up, literally, anywhere we would like within our scheme - all the way outside flexed to see what kind of matchup we can get on the outside or with a reasonable flex or tight."
While names like Ray Rice, Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin come to mind first when thinking about the Ravens offense, Pitta has a chance to play a big role on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. The Niners gave up eight touchdown receptions to tight ends during the regular season, good for seventh-most in the NFL. If San Francisco's defense keeps the deep ball in check as it has all season, the former fourth-rounder could be one of the Ravens' most important weapons in the Super Bowl.