OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Throughout the summer, Baltimore Ravens first-round pick Hayden Hurst looked like he was going to be a major piece of the offense. He won the starting tight-end job in training camp and scored a touchdown in his first preseason game.
Nearly halfway through the season, Hurst has become a major question. All he has to show so far in his rookie season is one catch, one significant injury and one play he wished he made in the red zone.
What's it going to take to get Hurst more involved in the passing game?
"For me to go run [the plays] fast and not mess up assignments and not have mental errors," Hurst said. "The more confidence the coaches are going to have in me, the more confidence they’re going to have to put me in game situations."
Hurst, the No. 25 overall pick, has been a nonfactor in three games since his return from foot surgery. He caught one pass for 7 yards in his first game, but he hasn't had a reception the past two weeks.
But Hurst has a chance to deliver his breakout game of the season Sunday at Carolina. The Panthers have allowed the sixth-most passing yards to tight ends (79.6 per game), and Carolina gave up 138 yards to Zach Ertz and a touchdown to Dallas Goedert in its last game.
"It’s important to get Hayden involved going forward," coach John Harbaugh said. "He’s a first-round pick, talented guy. He’s practicing really well. He’s a rookie –- that’s the other side of it -- and he missed a significant portion. We just have to keep bringing him along. I expect him to play well. He’s very determined. It’s important for us to have him rolling in our offense."
The rust factor has been evident with Hurst. There have been times when quarterback Joe Flacco has had to point Hurst into lining up at the right spot.
The biggest adjustments for Hurst have been the speed of the game and understanding the playcalls.
"It's just getting in there and running the routes quick and not really hesitating [and] getting to the spot where Joe wants me to be," Hurst said. "When I’m able to play fast, I feel that’s where I separate myself as a tight end. And understanding the playbook further will help me play even faster."
Rookie tight ends historically don't make immediate impacts. This year, five first-year tight ends have double-digit catches. Philadelphia's Goedert has been the most productive, with 17 receptions for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
Hurst's biggest opportunity came in Sunday's 24-23 loss to the New Orleans Saints. During a fourth-quarter rally, Flacco tossed the ball to Hurst in the red zone, but the pass was underthrown. The ball hit Hurst in the hands, and a Saints defensive back punched it away for an incompletion.
"Any ball that’s thrown my way, I want to make the catch," Hurst said. "I’m a little disappointed in myself. I don’t really drop stuff."
The Ravens need to get Hurst more involved because they've been among the worst teams at throwing over the middle. Flacco is 24-of-42 for 334 yards with no touchdowns and one interception between the hashes. His 72.9 passer rating over the middle is fourth-worst in the NFL, ahead of only those of Blake Bortles, Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota.
Few quarterbacks rely on tight ends more than Flacco. From 2008 through last season, he targeted tight ends on 1,090 passes. Only Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady have thrown more to tight ends.
Through seven games this season, Mark Andrews, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle each have at least 13 catches and 120 yards receiving. But Hurst was the first tight end selected in this year's draft for a reason. The Ravens envisioned him as a weapon down the seams and after the catch.
Flacco said Hurst has been progressing after being put in an unenviable situation.
"It’s tough when you come in a few weeks into the season, and we’ve game-planned four or five weeks at this point," Flacco said. "So to try to incorporate him back in, in a good way, isn’t always the easiest thing to do. He’s ready to go. It’s just about getting on the ball, getting that confidence going in his head and everybody else’s, and once that happens, we’ll just start rolling with it."
Hurst suffered a stress fracture in his foot in the third preseason game and didn't know it. He practiced a few days on it before tests revealed the break.
Calling it "a freak accident," Hurst said he had never been injured in football before.
"I want to be out there just as bad as people want to see me out there. Trust me," Hurst said. "It’s a little speed bump, and hopefully it’s going to be a pretty good career for me."