As always, the Ravens are dealing with some questions as they enter the heart of their team-building season, and one of the biggest is, quite, simply, who is going to carry the ball in 2015?
I mean that literally, not figuratively. Who is going to run the football?
There are several possibilities … and just as many uncertainties. Justin Forsett, the team's heartwarming surprise MVP of 2014, becomes a free agent next week. Lorenzo Taliaferro showed promise as a rookie, but is he ready for a heavier load? Can Bernard Pierce ever regain a major role? What about Melvin Gordon? Several mock drafts have linked the Ravens with Wisconsin's 2,000-yard rusher.
One way or another, the Ravens need to generate steady gains on the ground. Two years ago, they learned what it was like not to be able to run the ball – not fun. When they rediscovered their ground game in 2014 with Forsett leading the way, it was central to their offense's overall improvement.
Some teams can get by without a load-carrying back. The New England Patriots just won a Super Bowl without one. With so many teams passing more, backs are valued for blocking and receiving as much as for their rushing talents. There's no doubt the position's brand has suffered.
But running the ball is integral to the physical, hard-hitting style the Ravens have employed for years. One of the main reasons Head Coach John Harbaugh hired Gary Kubiak as his offensive coordinator a year ago was Kubiak's renown as a run-first guy. Harbaugh doesn't expect any less emphasis on the ground game in 2015 even though Kubiak's replacement, Marc Trestman, is known more as a passing-game expert.
"We've been running the ball here for a long time. That has been our philosophy and our belief, and Marc understands that," Harbaugh said last month.
My prediction is the status quo holds; Forsett ends up back on the team and at the top of the depth chart. And that's the best-case scenario for the Ravens, in my opinion. When Forsett more than doubled his career-high single-season rushing total in 2014, some wondered whether his success was his own or a product of Kubiak's system. There's no doubt the system helped, but Forsett's patience, vision and quickness helped him make the most of the opportunity. Those attributes remain in place regardless of who calls the plays.
Look at Forsett's career numbers. His impressive 2014 per-carry average of 5.4 yards is only slightly higher than his career average of 5.1 yards. He has ALWAYS picked up yards by the chunk, just needed an opportunity.
The framework is in place for him to have another strong season. The offensive line he ran behind last year returns intact. And although Forsett turns 30 in October, he doesn't have the wear of most backs his age.
His prior contract stipulates that the Ravens can't sign him until he becomes a free agent March 10, but both sides seemingly want to make a deal. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome said last week he wants Forsett back, and Forsett sounded hopeful in a Baltimore Sun interview, saying he wants to stay because the Ravens "gave me my opportunity" and he was "praying that everything works out."
Bringing back Forsett would give Taliaferro time to continue to develop while Pierce gets one more year to show what he's got. As for the Ravens drafting Gordon, I think it's likelier they use their first-round pick to bolster a position where they need more help, and pick up a running back later.
- It's a shame linebacker Jarret Johnson, who retired last week, wasn't able to spend his entire career with the Ravens and pick up a Super Bowl ring. He was a rugged, popular competitor, the ideal workingman's Raven, and he wanted to stay but got caught in a cap crunch, leaving for San Diego one year before the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Hats off to Double J on a great career.
- By cutting cornerback Victor Hampton Monday, the Ravens continue to show less tolerance for the kinds of off-field problems they experienced too often in 2014. Yes, it was easy for them to make an example of a fringe player who reportedly was caught driving 100 mph under the influence while friends in the back seat tried to hide their guns. It's always harder to make an example of a player you really need. But I wouldn't want to be the one to test the Ravens' patience this year. It's definitely shorter.