COURTESY OF BALTIMORE RAVENS MEDIA RELATIONS DEPARTMENT
Everyone knows about your underlying condition. How much did you weigh about playing? Or was that absolutely not a decision on your part? (Jamison Hensley) "I think in talking about everything … I've talked before about my dad being a doctor … I'm a healthy person. I've worked really hard, since a very young age, at keeping my body in the best shape, keeping tight control of my blood sugar. At the end of the day, that's the most important thing. I'm basically treating myself like a normal person. I think if I were to get it, the COVID[-19], and if I were to have it, it would interact just like anybody else, because I treat myself just like anybody else would, and my [blood sugar] numbers are great."
In that regard, are you or the Ravens taking any, I guess, extra precautions at the facility this year different from anybody else? Or are you, like you said, you're just like a normal player? (Shawn Stepner) "The Ravens do an incredible job of, one, just enforcing all the protocols. They've gone [above] and beyond all the expectations of when I came here and what to expect. Guys are wearing their face masks, and guys are social distancing and we're staying six feet apart. We're doing everything that we can on our end to be safe and smart. At the end of the day, I think it comes down to the players, the coaches and everyone that's around the facility to take it upon themselves to … When they're at home and there are people maybe coming into the house, or there are people that they're interacting with that they don't have control of limiting that and making sure that you're always wearing your mask. I think we all have a common goal to have this season, and I think people are more focused than ever to really achieve that."
A lot of the players that we've talked to have said that they, at least, thought about opting-out. That they, at least, had to go through the process of analyzing it in their minds. Did you do that? Did you think about it at all? (Childs Walker) "No – opting-out never really crossed my mind. Obviously, I think that safety is the most important thing. Seeing what the NFLPA and the NFL have come up with and the system, it's extremely encouraging. I think they have a great system in place. For me, there was never, 'Oh, I'm going to opt-out, or I may not play.' I've always been very strong in my beliefs that, one, I'm healthy. I keep my body healthy, and I'm going to do everything necessary to make sure I don't get COVID[-19]."
I haven't had a chance to talk to you since Falcons TE Hayden Hurst got dealt. I know you, and TE Nick Boyle and Hayden [Hurst] formed a really tight pact. You were able to get out that first year and not get injured, and Hayden [Hurst], unfortunately, was. You developed a better bond with QB Lamar Jackson. I'm wondering, did you have an indication before Hayden [Hurst] was traded that that was going to happen? Have you talked to him since? (Kirk McEwen) "First of all, it's obviously sad about Hayden [Hurst]. He's one of my best friends. Nick [Boyle] and I, and Pat [Ricard], and everybody else in that room, [assistant tight ends coach] Andy [Bischoff] and [tight ends coach] Bobby [Engram], we're going to miss him greatly. He had a big part last year in everything that we did and every day. We're going to miss him, first and foremost. But I didn't really have an indication. That was kind of a shocker to me. But at the end of the day, I think it's exciting for Hayden, and being a friend of his, I'm excited for him to have more of an opportunity. He's going to go to Atlanta and thrive. He's a really, really good player. He's a special player, and I think he just needs a chance."
What are you doing to help your new teammates? (Ximena Lugo-Latorre) "I think right now, it's just going in everyday and attacking each and every day, trying to get better. I think the main thing with this team is we've got a lot of young players, and we've got a lot of talent coming back. So, just getting in the facility each and every day, and working for one goal, and that's to win a Super Bowl. But, we've got to take that day-by-day, and one day at a time and not look too far ahead. Just being in there, being, kind of, a role model, and doing things the right way."
Entering your third year – and you made the Pro Bowl last year – what sort of goals have you set for yourself this season to put you at that next step as a tight end?(Todd Karpovich) "Obviously, last year was a good year, but there's a lot of room for me to improve. Looking back this offseason, I had a ton of time to think and watch film and really work on my body to try to get to that next level. I want to be the best tight end. I'm not there yet, and I'm excited to be able to show what I can do this year. I think blocking is going to be a huge thing for me where I've got to improve. I think I'm going to make big strides in that area this year, and I have a lot more opportunities to do that this year. And just continue to work as a receiving guy – that's my bread and butter. But I always want to get better at that. I want to be dangerous in all situations. I'm super excited for this year. I don't come out and have goals for any year. I don't want to have a certain amount of yards, or catches or touchdowns – I'm a team guy. I want to win a Super Bowl, and that's the most important thing for me."
Again, you have a lot of young talent, and you and a lot of other Pro Bowl players over the next couple of years could be getting new contracts. Have you, as a group, do you guys think how long can this team, this core, stay intact? Especially in a salary-capped year? (Jamison Hensley) "Right now, we're living in the moment; we're living in the now. And again, we've said it before; it's not looking too far ahead. There may be a lot of guys who need to be paid here in a couple of years, but the group that we have and everyone around us right now, with the coaches and the players, it's just so special to look too far ahead. So, we're taking it day-by-day, each moment, and trying to be the best team that we can be for this year."
You were talking about Falcons TE Hayden Hurst and a lot of people have talked about how many tight ends you guys used last year. All three of you guys played so much. I wanted to get your impressions on the young guys; TE Eli Wolf, TE Charles Scarff – who was on the practice squad last year – and, I guess, throw TE Jerell Adams in there. (Luke Jones) "That's a great question. Those guys have … Eli [Wolf], first of all, he's done a great job of coming here and learning the system. He moves incredibly well, and I'm super excited to play with him some more and get on the field with him. But, he looks really good. I'm excited about that. Charles [Scarff] has been here for a year and knows the system extremely well. Great blocker, has really good feet and he's, honestly, pretty crafty with running routes. Those guys are definitely competing. And then Jerell [Adams] – just being able to see him run routes and to see him move around. He's a guy that's been in the league for a while and knows some things. So, he's a good addition to the room. The tight end room is definitely going to be a battle, and those guys are working hard. But there's a lot of talent in our room right now."
I asked T Ronnie Stanley a similar question … I'm sure you have plenty of friends still at the University of Oklahoma who might not have a college football season this year. What would having a void like that mean to them do you think? If you could put yourself in their shoes? (Jonas Shaffer) "It's tough. It's tough to put yourself in those shoes, just being in college. I think at the end of the day, they have to do what's right for them. Being a college player and being an NFL player is a big difference, a big difference. They need to have people who are looking out for them, and for us, it was the NFLPA. They don't have that voice, so I think, as a whole, they need to have players step up and come together and be on the same page with what needs to happen and the guidelines that need to be taken. But it'd be tough, it'd be tough to have your season cancelled. I know for me, going to Oklahoma, I lived Oklahoma, I grew up on Oklahoma. So, for me not be able to have a season would be devastating. I'm hoping that they're going to have it for a lot of those kids' sakes. That's their time to go out there and prove themselves. A lot of those guys may make a name for themselves this year, and if they don't have that, maybe they don't get into the NFL. There's a lot that lies on that."
Last year, we talked to you and you mentioned that you worked on your blocking by working with your brother. I'm curious if you did that again? Or how does a tight end go about working on their blocking in an offseason situation? (Bo Smolka) "This offseason was, honestly, great. First of all, [head strength and conditioning coach] Steve Saunders and the staff, they did an incredible job with the Zoom workouts this year. I'm stronger than I've ever been. I have less fat on me than I've ever had, and I feel incredible. I think strength was a big thing. Just the way that they were able to handle it and get guys on the Zoom workouts and really work hard – it was incredible what the staff put together. Just being able to get stronger – I worked out with [coaching analyst – performance] Scott Elliott every day, another strength guy. So, that alone, I think, is going to help a lot. And then going out to the field is something that I did with my brother and my dad. I'd go out there and block and run routes. This is something that I did daily. So, it was a lot of work that was put in this offseason. It definitely was the hardest I've ever worked. So again, more blocking with my brother."
A lot of coaches – both your coaches and opponents – have complimented you on your ability to get open, which is something you don't hear about with a lot of young players. I'm just curious, without giving away any secrets, do you think that's more instinct, technique, or what is it about you that you feel you have grasped that part of the game so quickly? (Cliff Brown) "Yes, that's a great question. So, first of all, in high school, I started playing receiver. So, I grew up playing outside receiver. I think as a big guy, a big person, being able to have that feel for the game and to learn things as my base layer was great for me. Just being able to feel myself in space and feel where to go. But I think a lot of it is being able to feel things, and sometimes that can't be learned. There are a lot of things that I have learned and techniques that I use that guys will take or things like that, but just being able to feel yourself in space and feel where the other guy is going to be. A lot of getting open is deception – making a guy believe one thing and doing the other. And so, I think that's one of the best things that I do."
It seems like every receiver has gotten this question in one form or another, but what do you think is the next frontier for QB Lamar Jackson as a player? (Childs Walker)"That's a tough question. If you look at the season he had last year, it's hard to say he needs to have more yards or touchdown throws and things like that. One, his biggest goal is to win a Super Bowl – that's the biggest thing – and to do that, I think we have to be better in all phases. I think we have to grow upon last year. He's got the capabilities. He's the best player I've ever been around, and he works hard. So, I think you are going to see an even more polished and an even more ready Lamar [Jackson] than you saw last year. That almost sounds unbelievable, but the guy is incredible, and he's a winner."
I'm just wondering, kind of piggybacking off of that … What has QB Lamar Jackson been like, his personality, his demeanor, now that he's an MVP, he's on the cover of Madden, he's like one of the biggest superstars in the NFL? (Ryan Mink) "Lamar [Jackson] is Lamar, man. He's never going to change who he is. One, he's our leader. He's a guy that you can just go up to and talk to him, kind of shoot the crap with him. He's always going to have fun in the locker room and have fun with his guys, but when it's time to work and be competitive, that's who he is. He wants to win – whether it's in practice or whatever it may be. There's no superstardom coming from Lamar. Lamar is Lamar, and that's something that we all love about him. I think that's something that everyone can, kind of, relate to. His heads not too big or it'll never get too big, because he's a down-to-earth person."