Heading into this season, Baltimore Ravens tight end Nick Boyle is in a much different place than he was a year ago.
Last year, Boyle was still rehabbing from major knee surgery that he would not fully recover from for the whole of the 2021 season. This year, Boyle comes into OTAs having spent the last few months finally getting the knee 100 percent healthy, and he says he might even feel stronger than he did pre-injury.
"Anytime a player goes back out there and they don't feel like they're playing even close to where they were before, it's very demoralizing," Boyle said, via the team's website. "So coming back around this year and feeling so much better, it's just a really good feeling."
The 29-year-old has been considered one of the best blocking tight ends since he entered the league in 2015, establishing himself as a critical part of the Ravens' offense. But in Week 10 of the 2020 season a tackle around the knees resulted in surgery to fix multiple torn ligaments and a fracture, setting him on a long road to recovery.
Boyle spent the whole lead-up to the 2021 season rehabbing his knee in hopes to get back on the field, but the extent of the damage meant he still missed the first nine games of the year. Boyle said this period was extremely difficult for him as he watched his team play without him.
"[Last] year was tough for me. ... Seeing people practice, watching the film, being in the meeting rooms, it was like, 'I just have to try anything I have to do to get out there,'" Boyle said. "It's just so hard to sit back and watch when you've been a part of something."
Boyle was itching to get back on the field to contribute, and so with the Ravens ravaged by multiple injuries by the middle of the season, he once again suited up for Baltimore's Week 11 matchup with the Bears, despite recognizing that he was not yet at full health. He played 32 snaps in that win and received much praise from teammates for his determination in getting back out there, but he only played sporadically through the rest of the season and was never able to reach the impact that he had earlier in his career. His knee just wasn't 100 percent, and Boyle wasn't the same player.
"Maybe I wasn't really good or ready, or my leg wasn't up to standard," Boyle said. "But I really wanted to get out there and kind of show that I'm here to really try to get back on the field."
So he went back to the drawing board and was determined to return to his previous form come the 2022 season. He convinced his wife to move their family to Arizona to work with a trainer who specialized in rehabbing knee injuries. He spent two months at the facility working on his fitness, and stuck to a strict meal plan meant to offload some of the weight on his knee.
All the hard work has paid off -- Boyle says he's now 10-12 pounds lighter than he's played in the past, and he not only feels like his knee can support him again, but also actually feels stronger than ever.
"I feel good and I'm way stronger than I was at that weight. I think it was just a lot of de-loading on my knee," Boyle said. "I like to say, 'You take some load out of the car, and even though the horsepower's still the same, you get to move a little bit faster.' Overall, I just feel way better."
Now back to full health, Boyle is ready to actively contribute to the offense once again, where he'll try to prove that he can still play a pivotal role as the Ravens look to rebound from an 8-9 season. But while there's still work to be done, Boyle says he's just grateful to have a chance to play like himself again
"To be able to go back out there and feel good by being out there, is just a blessing," Boyle said.