The first time Isaiah Likely had to do his best Mark Andrews imitation, quarterback Lamar Jackson played as if he couldn’t tell the difference.
The Ravens hadn’t been planning to replace their Pro Bowl tight end. But, in a Week 8 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season, Andrews suffered a second-quarter shoulder injury. Likely, less than two months into his rookie season, stepped in and stepped up.
The fourth-round pick caught tightly contested passes over the middle. He separated in man-to-man coverage when Tampa Bay blitzed. He took advantage of aggressive run fits. He improvised in the end zone when Jackson had to work off schedule.
“What you’ve seen from him, I’ve been seeing it,” Jackson said of Likely after the 27-22 win, in which he finished 27-for-38 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. “I’ve been talking about it since camp, OTAs [organized team activities]. He showed up and showed out. … Hats off to him; I’m proud of him. I’m happy for him.”
Jackson and the Ravens have not often had to imagine a world without Andrews, who is believed to have suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Thursday’s win over the Cincinnati Bengals. But he missed enough time last year for Likely to at least offer proof of concept. His best games and biggest plays came when Andrews was unavailable: six catches for a team-high 77 yards against Tampa Bay; a 24-yard touchdown against the New Orleans Saints a week later; eight catches for 103 yards, both team highs, against the Bengals in last year’s regular-season finale.
There is no replacing Andrews, who leads Ravens receivers in yards per route run (1.92, according to Pro Football Focus), whose “street ball” connection with Jackson made him a red-zone weapon and safety blanket, whose versatility has made the Ravens’ balanced offense so difficult to defend. But coordinator Todd Monken has options, and he has Likely.
“It’s definitely something we’re going to have to fill in,” coach John Harbaugh said after Thursday’s game, which Andrews left after a controversial first-quarter hip-drop tackle by Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson. “It’s going to be kind of like — I don’t know, maybe it’s like sand or water. Everybody’s going to have to fill that hole in and just smooth it over, and that’s what they’ll do. Those tight ends are going to do great. Those guys work hard every day, very talented, but everybody else is going to have to step up as well.”
There is no substitute for experience, and no one on the Ravens’ roster knows Jackson better than his 2018 draftmate. Jackson has targeted Andrews 432 times over his career, according to TruMedia, 176 times more than the next most targeted, former Ravens wide receiver Marquise “Hollywood” Brown (256). Devin Duvernay has been targeted 101 times, fourth most; Rashod Bateman, only 91 times; Zay Flowers, just 72.
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With those repetitions has come an unspoken understanding of what works. In the red zone with Jackson, Andrews has 41 career catches on 71 targets for 26 touchdowns. Since 2018, the only more productive quarterback-tight end connection inside the 20-yard line has been the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce (77 catches on 115 targets for 41 touchdowns).
On third and fourth downs, meanwhile, Jackson has averaged a hyperefficient 0.60 expected points added per target over his career when looking for Andrews, more than three times Jackson’s career average in those situations. Over half of Andrews’ late-down targets and over three-quarters of his late-down catches have turned into first downs, according to TruMedia.
“We’ve been bread and butter, peanut butter and jelly, whatever you want to call it,” Jackson said Thursday. “It’s very tough, because that’s my boy. That’s Receiver 1 sometimes. … He’s been having a remarkable year. … That’s tough, but we have to somehow do it without him. We have Likely. We have Charlie [Kolar]. We have guys who are going to step up, but it’s tough.”
Without Andrews, the Ravens will have to adjust. Even their rushing attack will need tweaking. Andrews has evolved into a dependable in-line blocker — Harbaugh singled out his performance after the Ravens ran wild against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 9 — and the team averaged 5.1 yards on 50 designed carries and posted an elite rushing success rate of 49% when he was the only tight end or fullback on the field this season.
With Andrews off the field, the Ravens have steered away from the ground game, rushing just 19 times total when Likely or Kolar is the only tight end or fullback present. Likely often lines up along the line of scrimmage or as a “detached” tight end, but with his short arms and light frame, he struggles at times to handle stronger, heavier edge defenders.
Monken has mitigated that inconsistency by using Likely as an outlet on run-pass options, which can freeze the second level of a defense or remove a defender from the box.
Likely can be useful as a blocker, though, especially in space. On running back Keaton Mitchell’s 60-yard run against Seattle, he sealed off outside linebacker Darrell Taylor despite being outweighed by about 25 pounds.
Likely (nine catches on 11 targets for 89 yards this season) also profiles as a different type of receiver than Andrews. While their alignments and route distributions aren’t too dissimilar — Likely runs notably more flat and go routes and notably fewer out routes — Andrews distinguishes himself as a downfield weapon. Since 2022, his average depth of target is 9.2 yards, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, one of the highest rates for a tight end in the NFL.
Likely’s typical target depth has been a just-above-league-average 6.9 yards, fueled by a handful of quick-hitter stick routes over the middle of the field. Monken has also featured him as a primary option on play-action bootlegs and tight end screens, hoping to weaponize his open-field slipperiness.
Likely’s hands are his biggest red flag. He had four drops last season (10% drop rate, according to PFF) and has two this season (18.2% rate), including one that might’ve denied the Ravens a potential game-winning field goal against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3. Of the 20 tight ends who entered Week 11 leading the position in receiving, only two had a drop rate of at least 10%.
The Ravens do not need Likely to replicate Andrews’ production to sustain their offensive success. Their rushing attack is the NFL’s best, their offensive line has kept Jackson well protected most of the season, and their wide receivers are coming off their best game of the season.
The Ravens just need to figure out what works best for Likely. It might be what fueled him last season. It might be something different this season. There is already a natural rapport with Jackson, who often walks off the practice field joking with Likely and last year featured him on a TikTok video. And, in Andrews, Likely will have a walking, talking Lamar Jackson encyclopedia.
“I really just feel like me holding on to little details on how Lamar sees things [will help], and then getting that same input on how Mark would have probably done it for him, and then just really trying to incorporate it into my game and how I do things and going from there,” Likely said Thursday.
Added Jackson: “Those guys are going to step up, and they’ve been playing their tail off as well, but we’re going to build chemistry. I don’t want to say it’s like Mark isn’t there, but he’s not going to be there, because it’s a season-ending injury. Those guys are going to step up and do what they’re supposed to do.”