Eisenberg: Ravens Have More Competition At Running Back Than Ever


You think oil prices have dropped? Check out the stock of running backs in pro football.

A decade ago, in 2006, 23 NFL backs rushed for more than 1,000 yards. But last year, in the 2015 season, only seven reached that threshold.

It's such a whopping decline that I can't even figure out the math. The glory days of the running back clearly are over.

Those glory days were something. When the Associated Press began giving out an NFL MVP award in 1957, four of the first six recipients were running backs. In the 1970s, four different backs won the award. In those days, you could go far on the shoulders of a ground-and-pound back.

As recently as 2005 and 2006, running backs still won MVP honors in back-to-back years (Shaun Alexander and LaDanian Tomlinson, FYI).

But only once since then has a running back won the award. That was Adrian Peterson in 2011. Quarterbacks have been the MVP for three straight years and eight of the past nine.

These days, offensive linemen, especially blind-side tackles, make more money than running backs. Witness the Ravens' "aggressive" attempt to keep Kelechi Osemele. (I still expect him to test the free-agent market.)

It all reflects the evolution of NFL offenses, which now tend to feature passing games as a foundation. The New England Patriots, who win more consistently than anyone, barely even try to run anymore.

Still, running games aren't close to extinct. I looked it up. In 2006, the year of 23 thousand-yard backs, the average per-game rushing output for an NFL team was 117 yards. In 2015, when only seven backs reached 1,000 yards, the average per-game output was still 108 yards, not much lower.

Teams are still running the ball, but they're doing it more with a committee of backs rather than one star.

I think that's where the Ravens are headed in 2016 and beyond.

They've actually already gone in that direction since the days when Ray Rice dominated their ground game, gaining nearly 70 percent of their rushing yardage in 2010 and 2011. Rice generated just 60 percent of the yardage in 2012 and just 49.6 percent in 2013 as his backups assumed larger roles. Although Justin Forsett made the Pro Bowl when he replaced Rice in 2014, he still gained just 62.7 percent of the team's rushing yardage. Bernard Pierce and Lorenzo Taliaferro chipped in nicely.

The 2015 season is hard to analyze because Forsett suffered a season-ending injury in November. He was on track for another 1,000-yard season, but barely. His per-rush average had declined from 5.4 in 2014 to 4.2 in 2015, quite a falloff.

After Forsett was out, his replacement, rookie Buck Allen, performed capably enough, averaging 3.5 yards on 95 carries. Allen's backup, Terrance West, also exhibited potential, breaking several runs. Taliaferro, who went on injured reserve, has moved piles in his brief career. And now the Ravens are looking at adding Trent Richardson to the mix.

It was the report of a possible Richardson signing that got me thinking about all this. Predictably, it produced a flurry of online speculation. Would his arrival lead the salary-cap-strapped Ravens to cut Forsett and clear cap space? Or could Richardson, the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, become a top backup?

Here's what I think: The Ravens' running game disappointed in 2015 and they're looking to rebound by giving the ball to a fleet of backs. And everything is up for grabs except Forsett still figures to be the starter. Yes, the Ravens need cap space, but if you're trying to get your running game going, you don't cut your most dependable back, the only one on your team to surpass 4.0 yards a carry in 2015.

Yet Forsett is 30, coming off a serious injury, and at his size, probably most effective over 16 games when not carrying the heaviest load. Meanwhile, there's young talent behind him. The Ravens are deeper at running back than almost anywhere.

I envision Forsett fronting a steadily-changing rotation, sharing the load almost surely with Allen, who has earned a role, and either Taliaferro, West or Richardson, whose inclusion certainly can't be assumed seeing as he was out of the NFL in 2015.

One way or another, there's going to be more of a committee than ever. It's how many teams roll now, and the Ravens' depth sets them up nicely to join the trend.

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