I don’t think it’s tough to identify the position at which the Ravens are most improved from a year ago – running back, easily.
And to grasp the full extent of that improvement, consider the situation Gus Edwards finds himself in.
A 235-pound bulldozer, he signed with the Ravens as an undrafted rookie in 2018. He didn’t make the 53-man roster to start the season, but was promoted from the practice squad in October, earned a starting job and wound up leading the team in rushing (718 yards). That’s quite a rise, and now, returning for his second season, Edwards has sculpted his powerful body and worked on becoming more versatile by catching more passes.
You can’t have a much better start to a pro career. Edwards, 24, has done nothing wrong and a whole lot right.
Yet he lost his starting job during the offseason and now finds himself waiting to see how his role develops.
Tough place, this NFL.
It was nothing personal. The Ravens would love to clone Edwards’ drive, work ethic and no-nonsense attitude and instill it in every player. (They love his selflessness, too. He hasn’t said a peep, just accepted his new normal and sought to make the most of it.)
No, what happened was the Ravens committed to a run-oriented offense, naturally prompting them to want to expand and diversify the stable of backs who line up behind and beside Lamar Jackson and take handoffs.
Given how much they plan to run the ball, they obviously need more than one back. Edwards was pretty banged up by the end of last season. And though his straight-ahead style is vintage Ravens, they’d be selling themselves short if they didn’t add speed and other running styles to Jackson’s supporting cast.
They targeted Mark Ingram II, an accomplished back who was hitting free agency after eight years of steady production with the New Orleans Saints. Then, shortly after Ingram came aboard, they drafted Oklahoma State’s Justice Hill, the fastest running back in the 2019 draft, according to Combine 40-yard dash times.
With those moves, the Ravens succeeded in becoming much deeper and more versatile at Edwards’ position. Ingram, 30, is a pro’s pro, accustomed to carrying a heavy load. You don’t sign a three-year, $15 million contract to be anything other than the starter. Hill, 21, has exhibited power to go with his speed while playing his way into what could become a major role.
It would appear Edwards is sandwiched between the newcomers on the depth chart – behind Ingram, ahead of Hill. As the primary backup in a share-the-load blueprint, he’ll probably be given an intermittent series, possibly more depending on whose style is working on a given day. And of course, he’s perfect for any short-yardage situations. (But so is Ingram.)
Bottom line, the starting job Edwards earned as a rookie has been sacrificed for the sake of giving the Ravens a deeper and more varied stable of backs, which they’ll surely need. It’s a long season. Running backs get banged up. In fact, the need at the position is liable to be so great that I’m guessing Kenneth Dixon also will make the roster, giving the Ravens four running backs – one more than they usually keep.
Dixon, a fourth-year player who was highly effective backing up Edwards late last season, landed on the roster bubble when Ingram and Hill were added. But Ravens Running Backs Coach Matt Weiss has called him “the most pure talent as a runner of the group.”
If the Ravens were to part ways with Dixon, they’d need to find another back if one of their top three gets hurt, entirely possible. And I doubt they’d find one as talented and potentially productive as Dixon, who rushed for 117 yards in the Ravens’ season finale last season.