The Ravens’ rushing attack was much improved last season, going from No. 28 in the NFL to No. 11. Baltimore has a stable of talented, young running backs.
But in the pecking order of offensive improvements to be made this offseason, running back still makes the list.
The Ravens aren’t looking for more depth at the position. They are looking for a lead dog who could instantly juice up the offense.
“If there’s a guy that we think is a special running back, a guy that can take a game over with his unique skillset, we’ll take that guy,” Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta said at the Senior Bowl. “And there are some guys in the draft that can do that.”
The Ravens’ running backs corps is an interesting group, and almost all of them are expected back next season.
Alex Collins, 23, came out of nowhere to become one of the best stories and premier talents in the league. His 973 rushing yards were the 11th-most in the NFL and his 4.6 yards per carry were the eighth-most among running backs.
After getting just nine carries in his second year, Buck Allen, 26, had a rebound season with 591 rushing yards. His 3.9 yards per carry, however, was just a tick improved from his two previous seasons at 3.8 yards. The 2016 fourth-round pick also showed, as he did as a rookie, that he can be a reliable receiver.
Kenneth Dixon, 24, looked like he could be the lead back last year before tearing his meniscus, which forced him to the sideline for the entire season. The 2017 fourth-round pick is expected back at the start of offseason practices, but will be coming off the injury.
Veteran pass-catching back Danny Woodhead missed half the year because of a hamstring injury and finished with 33 catches for 200 yards. Terrance West, who was also hampered by injuries, is a pending unrestricted free agent.
With four running backs under contract for next season, the Ravens don’t have to add another.
“First of all, we love the backs that we have,” DeCosta said.
“Alex was a revelation for us this year. We expect Kenneth Dixon to come back and look like the player that he looked like last year at the end of the season. And Buck is a guy that probably improved as much as anybody on our team from the beginning of the season to the end of the season. We also have Danny Woodhead, who fills that kind of niche position.”
With that all said, the Ravens still feel like they could get better. Just look at the New Orleans Saints as an example.
In 2016, their lead running back, Mark Ingram, finished 11th in the league in rushing yards (1,043) and sixth in yards per carry (5.1) – similar rankings to Collins. New Orleans still drafted running back Alvin Kamara near the beginning of the third round the following offseason.
Kamara’s explosiveness instantly made the Saints offense more dynamic, which was a big reason why they went back to the playoffs after a three-year absence. Karama went to the Pro Bowl and may be the Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The Ravens would like to strike in a similar fashion.
“In this year’s draft, I think there are some players that have special ability, game-breaker ability. Guys that can catch the ball on third downs, guys that can take it the distance,” DeCosta said. “We don’t necessarily have that type of guy.”
The draft’s top running backs are Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, who some are calling the best overall prospect, LSU’s Derrius Guice and Southern California’s Ronald Jones II.
The Ravens would likely have to trade up 10 or more spots to get Barkley, but Guice has been mocked to Baltimore in multiple places. Guice ran for 1,251 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, though he caught just 18 passes for 124 yards and two scores. He had an even better year as a sophomore.
Perhaps a game-breaking talent, like Kamara, can be found in later rounds as well, as this year’s running back class appears deep. Georgia’s duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb were showcased in the college football playoffs. San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny and North Carolina State’s versatile Jaylen Samuels stood out at the Senior Bowl.