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Mailbag: How Will the Ravens Deploy Their Running Backs?

RB Justice Hill
RB Justice Hill

Mink: With J.K. Dobbins now practicing (though still limited), we see the full abundance of depth the Ravens have in the backfield. Justice Hill said after Saturday's game that the Ravens think they have the deepest running back group in the league. I went through all the depth charts. There's a lot of merit to his argument.

The first question is who makes the team. Currently, the Ravens have three locks in Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Hill. That means the fourth spot is up for grabs between Melvin Gordon III, Keaton Mitchell and fellow undrafted rookie Owen Wright. It's going to be a tough call between Gordon, an established veteran who has shown his quickness, and Mitchell, an explosive rookie with return ability.

So how do we see the action divvied up? That's tough to answer. I expect that Dobbins will be the lead back, with Edwards getting the second-most carries, followed by Hill. The split has been fairly even in years past and I don't expect that to change all that much. Maybe Dobbins gets a slightly larger load share than previously, especially if he looks fully recovered from his knee injury. But Edwards also said he feels good after dealing with his knee recovery last season. He envisions his best season yet. Hill has had a very strong camp thus far and seems deserving of a significant offensive role too. It's a good problem to have.

At the end of the day, the Ravens' backfield features a good mix of skillsets. Dobbins is a shifty do-it-all runner who can also be a dangerous pass catcher. His vision, patience, and burst give him home-run rushing ability running inside or outside the tackles. Edwards is still the hammer that can wear down opponents. Hill is still a speedster who can do damage in space, particularly on outside runs and as a receiver. Baltimore's coaches will likely use the runners situationally to keep them all fresh.

As for whether Mitchell makes the team, he needs to continue to show he can handle an NFL rushing workload (Gordon has proven it over his career) and his work on special teams will likely be a pretty big factor. It's not just as a returner, but also on punt and kickoff coverage. The more he does there, the better his chances of beating out the veteran.

Downing: Yes, I think Ar'Darius Washington could play his way into the nickel cornerback role. The Ravens are thin at cornerback right now, especially as Rock Ya-Sin, Jalyn Armour-Davis and Arthur Maulet are currently sidelined. They aren't dealing with serious injuries, but their absence in training camp has created some concern about the depth at cornerback. Pepe Williams was a strong candidate for the nickel job, but he needs to undergo ankle surgery and will be out at least until October. Those injuries have opened the door at both No. 2 cornerback and slot corner.

With Washington, he's a talented player and has played well in training camp and the preseason opener. He's undersized at 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, but he can still hold up well in the slot role. Maulet is another strong candidate for that job. He's a proven veteran with 20 career starts under his belt, and the Ravens could opt to go in his direction. The other possibility is that the Ravens have some roster flexibility to put three safeties on the field with Marcus Williams, Kyle Hamilton and Geno Stone or Brandon Stephens, and they could drop Hamilton down inside again like they did last year. They could also slide cornerback Marlon Humphrey inside in three cornerback sets. They have options for the nickel cornerback spot, and Washington is certainly one of them.

Mink: I don't think this competition is settled, but if picking a leader right now, I'd go with the veteran, John Simpson. Simpson had the best pass blocking grade (86.0), by a wide margin, of any lineman in the first preseason game, per Pro Football Focus.

Head Coach John Harbaugh said Tuesday that Simpson is "making a good case for himself. He was – he was very solid; [that's] a good word for it. His footwork, fundamentals, assignments were all good. He was physical. [He's] a very aggressive player."

The game, at least at this level, is obviously still new for rookie Sala Aumavae-Laulu, and he's adjusting to the strength and physicality of this level. Aumavae-Laulu didn't get strong grades from PFF in his preseason opener, and Harbaugh said he expects the rookie to improve a lot from the first game in his second game Monday night against the Commanders.

Downing: Del'Shawn Phillips has been one of the under-the-radar impressive players of training camp. He's shown a good nose for the football and has played with intensity throughout camp. He's shown the ability to step into a larger role on defense if the Ravens need him to do so. However, I still expect his primary responsibility to be on special teams. Phillips is an ace special teamer, and the Ravens will lean on him in that department. The reality is that his opportunities will be limited at linebacker given the depth the Ravens have at the position. Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen are the best linebacker duo in the NFL, and they'll be on the field for just about every defensive snap. The Ravens also have strong inside linebacker depth with Trenton Simpson, Malik Harrison and Kristian Welch, which makes the path to playing time difficult for Phillips. The Ravens place a premium on quality special teams play, so I expect Phillips to be on the 53-man roster, but he may have limited opportunities to crack the defensive lineup.

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