OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Ed Dickson has done the scouting reports. He's pored over the film. He's compared 40-yard dash times, and he's sized up the competition each Sunday.
Forget the former Oregon standout's unimpressive numbers this season. In Dickson's mind, he's a top-five NFL tight end.
"Without a doubt, I'm up there," Dickson said from the Baltimore Ravens' training facility last week. "I'm a starter in this league, here or anywhere I think."
A disappointing campaign filled with injury and demotion can hardly shake the third-year Raven's supreme confidence. As Dickson prepares for his first Super Bowl on Sunday, he believes — in fact, he knows — he can deliver a dominant performance on his sport's grandest stage. It's just a matter of staying healthy and getting the opportunities, he reasons.
The assessment comes as no surprise to those who know him. Dickson, after all, is the same player who announced during training camp his intentions to eclipse the 17 receiving touchdowns New England's Rob Gronkowski recorded last season — the NFL single-season record for a tight end.
"I can beat pretty much whoever lines up across from me," said Dickson, who holds the Ducks' tight end records for catches and receiving yards. "Whether it's physical-wise or in the pass game, catching the ball or whatever I'm doing, I can beat him."
So then why does Dickson barely figure into the Ravens' offensive game plan this season? The 25-year-old ranks sixth on the team in receptions (21) and receiving yards (225), and has yet to reach the end zone through 16 games. Those numbers are a far cry from the five touchdowns, 54 catches and 528 yards he totaled during his second season.
The truth is, Dickson's year has been plagued since the start of preseason. He landed awkwardly on a touchdown reception during the Ravens' Aug. 9 exhibition win over Atlanta, suffering a right shoulder sprain that sidelined him for the team's remaining three preseason games.
When Dickson returned for a season-opening rout of Cincinnati, fellow tight end Dennis Pitta hauled in 51 more yards on three more catches than Dickson. A few days later, a reporter informed Dickson that Pitta had leapfrogged him on the depth chart. His 19-game run as the starter would be snapped, making way for the player the Ravens selected 43 picks after him in the 2010 NFL draft.
The demotion played out on the field. While Pitta emerged as one of quarterback Joe Flacco's favorite targets, Dickson spent most of his limited playing time blocking.
And when Flacco did look for him in the passing game, Dickson struggled to find a rhythm. He nabbed just 10 of his first 20 passes this season, a completion percentage that ranked last among Ravens with more than two attempts. Each dropped pass weighed on him mentally, and he started feeling anxious when he saw the ball heading his direction.
A frustrated Dickson began staying late after practices with old college roommate Dennis Dixon, a quarterback on Baltimore's practice squad. They ran through the playbook, and Dixon quizzed his former prized target on that week's matchup.
The extra work seemed to help, as Dickson limited the drops and erupted for a 59-yard outing during a Nov. 11 win over Oakland. The showing included a 40-yard grab — easily his longest reception of 2012 — that set up a 1-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
But success can be fleeting during a season that's been off-kilter from the outset. Two weeks later, Dickson suffered a sprained and bruised right knee in a victory at San Diego. He was forced to sit and watch while the Ravens dropped their next three games.
Dixon could notice something was amiss with his buddy during that recovery period. Dickson's body language was off. He was dropping his head and moping around the Ravens' training facility.
"I had to pick him up," Dixon said. "I just let him know, you know, your teammates support you. Just make sure you're working your butt off day in and day out so you can get back on the field."
Dickson's individual contributions have varied since returning to the lineup in late December. There was the Dec. 30 loss at Cincinnati in which he notched season highs in catches (six) and receiving yards (64). And there were the forgettable ones — the one-catch outing against Indianapolis in an AFC wild-card game, the no-catch showing against the Patriots in the AFC Championship.
But Dickson had a pivotal realization shortly following that 28-13 victory at Gillette Stadium. After the initial shock of making the Super Bowl wore off, Dickson sent out a host of texts and phone calls. He wanted to thank everyone who had supported him through the years, the family members and coaches who made sure he did his homework and showed up to practices on time.
Somewhere in the midst of those messages and conversations, Dickson started feeling nostalgic. He reflected on his days growing up in Inglewood, Calif., a time when football felt new and exciting. He remembered playing in his neighborhood park, joking around with friends that he would one day catch the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
Then it dawned on him: He may have that opportunity. And who knows? That chance may never have arrived had he enjoyed a milestone statistical season this year.
"Sure, I want to have more catches or something like that, but things happen for a reason," Dickson said. "God does things for a reason. Maybe I wasn't meant to have a big year for us to go to the Super Bowl."
So in the days leading up to the biggest game of his life, Dickson isn't fretting over touchdown records or top-five rankings. He's focused on perfecting his technique and learning his opponent. Anything to become a multidimensional player and a quality teammate.
"I can see a dramatic change," Dixon said. "He's pretty much even-keel, making sure he takes care of his body so when the time does come, he's ready to perform."
Said Ravens coach John Harbaugh: "He's really (become) kind of a complete tight end for us."