Hayden Hurst was making big plays downfield, delivering key blocks in the running game and doing many of the things rookie tight ends have struggled with over the years.
But a stress fracture in Hurst’s foot will sideline him to start the season, which could help extend a long-running trend in the NFL.
Over the past 15 years, only two rookie tight ends have produced more than 600 yards receiving. The Giants’ Evan Engram totaled 722 yards receiving last season, and John Carlson recorded 627 with the Seahawks in 2008.
“In my 12 years now there’s been a handful of rookies that have come in and been productive,” said Panthers tight end Greg Olsen, a three-time Pro Bowl player. "You don’t see the production level early at the tight-end position that you do at wide receiver or running back or even the offensive line. I don’t know why.”
The biggest reason is that tight end is a position different than any other on offense. Like offensive linemen, tight ends have to learn the concepts of blocking schemes. Like wide receivers, tight ends have to understand the nuances of route-running.
One coach told former Ravens tight end Todd Heap that only the quarterback should know more about the offense than the tight end. Heap once got reamed out by an offensive coordinator when a teammate wasn’t lined up correctly.
"It taught me a lesson that this is the way many coordinators see the tight-end position,” Heap said. "They put a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.”
Heap played behind Shannon Sharpe as a Ravens rookie, a path familiar for many tight ends. Instead of overwhelming young tight ends, teams are putting them in situations where they can be mentored for a couple of years.
The Titans’ Delanie Walker, a college wide receiver, appreciated the time he got to learn the tight-end position. He was the 49ers’ No. 2 tight end for most of his seven years in San Francisco. Now, Walker has gone to three consecutive Pro Bowls in Tennessee.
"It was difficult, I’m not going to lie,” Walker said. "The first two years, just trying to learn the defensive technology, meaning fronts, and learning how to block was tough. I think that was one of the best things for me: having Vernon Davis as a starter and me being a sponge just trying to learn from him. Being able to watch and learn from him helped evolve my game.”
The evolution for many of the best tight ends in this generation has come as early as the second season.
Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard, the No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 draft, is hoping to make a similar jump after 26 catches for 432 yards in his first season.
"It's a lot coming onto your plate [as a rookie],” Howard told the Buccaneers’ team website. "You have to run block, pass block, catch balls, you have to do a lot of things. This year it's kind of slowing down for me and it's allowing me to play faster. Every year you want to get better. Things I didn't know last year I know now, and that allows me to play faster and more confident.”
The first tight end drafted this year was projected to be on a faster track. The Ravens used the No. 25 overall pick on Hurst after not re-signing Benjamin Watson, last season's leading pass-catcher for Baltimore.
With his quickness and reliable hands, Hurst was running with the first team and catching lots of passes from Joe Flacco, who is known to love throwing to his tight ends. But Hurst injured his foot in the Ravens’ third preseason game and had surgery Aug. 25. He is expected to miss at least the first couple of games of the regular season.
"I’ll be back stronger in a few short weeks!” the South Carolina product tweeted. "I will rehab and work harder than ever to be back in the best shape imaginable and to make this season a special one.”
In order to produce a “special” season, Hurst will have to be one of the few rookie tight ends who defied the odds.
ESPN.com reporters David Newton and Turron Davenport contributed to this story.