You want to elicit rage from someone in Baltimore? Bring up the 2016 Ravens running game. Marc Trestman was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties in part because of his lack of commitment to running the ball. Marty Mornhinweg took over and proceeded to…not run the ball either. 672 pass attempts later, the improvement of the running game is a major talking point this offseason. Ironically, it really doesn’t have much to do with the actual running backs. It’s a deep, talented group of young players that maybe lacks a top-end talent, but certainly has more than enough to have the type of success required to get the Ravens back into contention.
Let’s take a look at the roster as it currently stands.
Many fans were a bit surprised when John Harbaugh declared running back a need, largely because of the promise 4th round pick Kenneth Dixon showed last season. Regardless of when you read this, there’s a good chance Dixon is somewhere breaking a tackle.
In 2016, among all 71 running backs with at least 40 carries, Kenneth Dixon ranked first in missed tackles forced per attempt pic.twitter.com/zn5fdQzHyy
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) February 19, 2017
His physical approach as a runner was impressive, but doesn’t tell the full story of his talent. He’s got quickness, vision, and speed in the open field and is really comfortable in the receiving game. So much so that many labeled him a 3rd down back coming into the draft last year because he isn’t the biggest guy. Like most young backs, his pass protection still needs work but if he can clean that up he’s absolutely a feature back in the NFL.
Terrance West’s career looked a bit in doubt after he was traded away by the Browns and cut by the Titans. He got to Baltimore late in 2015 with the chance to change his story. In 2016 training camp, his name kept popping up because of the shape he was in and just how well he played. He parlayed his terrific camp into a little over 900 total yards and it would seem likely he’s tendered and returns to complement Dixon as a between-the-tackles hammer.
West’s step forward pushed Buck Allen a step back. After a productive rookie season, he was barely involved in year two. Because the Ravens weren’t running the ball much and they used fullback Kyle Juszczyk as a pass protector on passing downs, there wasn’t much room for Allen as the season progressed. With a newfound commitment to the run game (fingers crossed) there could be more of a chance for him to contribute. He’s a solid all-around player whose calling card is pass-catching and fluidity in the open field. Proving himself as a pass protector would be his most likely avenue to more playing time.
Lorenzo Taliaferro enters a make-or-break offseason. A big, talented downhill runner who showed promise in his rookie season, Lo has struggled through injuries since. He returned last season and was able to edge Allen as a game day active a few games because of his play on special teams. On talent, he absolutely should make the team but can he be trusted to stay healthy?
Stephen Houston is an interesting athlete. Still only 25 years old, his combination of size and speed is undeniable. When you watch him, he runs too high and lacks wiggle, but if you give him a crease he runs by people. If he can work on that pad level, he has some zone scheme appeal.
The Ravens and Kyle Juszczyk’s agent will reportedly meet at the NFL scouting combine to discuss an extension. “Juice” is heading for unrestricted free agency at the perfect tim,e coming off a Pro Bowl appearance. His versatility can serve as a valuable cog to any offense. Not only can he run it, catch it and line up all across the formation, but he is also the best pass-protecting back the team has right now. Check out Dev Panchwagh’s dive into Greg Roman’s running game, and you see the attractive possibilities but the question, as it always is around here is…right player, right price?
As Tony Lombardi and Brian McFarland discussed during a recent podcast, the Ravens have shown precedent with moving on at fullback. From Ovie Mughelli to Le’Ron McClain and so on…they don’t have a problem finding a more cost-effective option.
Jerome Felton – Felton is absolute bulldozer in the running game and played for Roman in Buffalo. He doesn’t add all the dimensions that Juice does but he will make his presence felt in the run game, likely at a much lower cost.
Danny Woodhead – Suppose Juice does leave and the young backs on the roster don’t take a step in pass protection. Woodhead could be that steady hand on 3rd down, provided he’s recovered from the ACL injury he suffered last season.
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Leonard Fournette, RB LSU – Harbaugh’s comments about wanting another running back could turn out to be just coach speak or an attempt to motivate his young backs. But if they aren’t, what could the Ravens be looking for that they don’t already have? Enter Fournette. The guy is the type of physical specimen that doesn’t come around often. While it’s become vogue to knock his versatility and lateral ability, there’s no denying the type of downhill force he can be in the right offense.
Projection: 1st round
Alvin Kamara, RB Tennessee – If it’s elite explosiveness the Ravens feel they lack, then Kamara might be on their radar. He’s an incredibly elusive player with terrific speed, hands and ability in the open field. He also shows some upside as a pass protector. He’s not shown that he can be a true workhorse back, but he’s someone defenses have to account for with the ball in his hands.
Projection: 2nd round
Sam Rogers, FB Virginia Tech – If the Ravens decide to move on at fullback, Rogers could be Juice-ish for a fraction of the cost. He’s was used a lot like Juszczyk in college, in the single back as a runner and pass blocker, split out wide as a receiver and in-line as a blocker. He’s not as physically gifted but could represent a reasonable facsimile.
Projection: 6th round
Freddie Stevenson, RB Florida State – Stevenson is more of a traditional lead blocker, but he’s more of an athlete than usually see in that role. He moves well laterally and get downfield quickly to seek out 2nd level defenders. He’s not proven in the pass game but offers special teams value.
Projection: 7th round