One of the position groups with the most uncertainty heading into the Baltimore Ravens 2014 training camp is the offensive backfield, where Baltimore’s expected top three ball carriers all had some form of issue in the offseason.
Arrests headlined the offseasons of running backs Ray Rice and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro, with a suspension for Rice looming as the season approaches.
2013 backup ball carrier Bernard Pierce is returning from offseason shoulder surgery – not an ideal issue for a running back (pass protection, ability to take defenders straight on) – and just how healthy he will be in 2014 remains to be seen.
Throw in veteran running back Justin Forsett and fullback Kyle Juszczyk and there’s no shortage of names to follow in Baltimore’s backfield in the months of July and August.
Notable new additions: Taliaferro and Forsett – With Rice’s expected suspension, a door will open for Forsett to make the roster, and his familiarity with offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and zone-running ability makes him a prime candidate to take advantage of any missed time by Rice.
Taliaferro won’t have any problems making the roster; the question with him is how much of a workload he can handle early in his career. The strong, patient, methodical runner averaged 6.3 yards per carry in his final season at Coastal Carolina, and his running skill set should translate well to the zone scheme.
His value in the passing game – pass protection is his best asset – will be needed, as in the Rice-less time, Taliaferro may have to relieve Pierce in passing situations, as Taliaferro’s value as a pass protector trumps Pierce’s.
Even after Rice’s return, Taliaferro figures to still be on the active roster, while the best case scenario for Forsett is that he latches on for the games without Rice.
Running back to follow: Kyle Juszczyk – OK, he’s not a running back. But he’s not a fullback, either. We’ll just call him a member of the backfield, as he’ll likely be a fullback, H-back and tight end depending on the formation.
Juszczyk hardly touched the field as a rookie besides special teams, but both his skill set and Kubiak’s arrival point to a steady increase in his offensive role throughout the 2014 season.
He’s the dream diverse offensive piece for Kubiak, who can use Juszczyk as the James Casey of the Ravens.
Expect a defined role in the passing game for Juszczyk, providing quarterback Joe Flacco an extra target out of the backfield that he lacked last season.
Player with most to prove: Ray Rice – Issues off the field aside, Rice’s on-field performance has steadily declined. He averaged a career-low 3.1 yards per carry last season and caught just 58 passes and scored only four touchdowns, both of which were his lowest totals since his 2008 rookie season.
This didn’t come out of nowhere; Rice averaged just 3.6 yards per carry on 84 attempts in the playoffs during the team’s 2012 Super Bowl.
Rice hasn’t looked like his usual self since the end of the 2012 regular season. Will he ever reach his former All-Pro level again?
Even with an improved offensive line to run behind this year, just how much Rice can improve remains a question mark.
This is a running back with over 1,600 career carries and over 400 receptions (including the playoffs). And let’s not forget the 910 rushing attempts he had in three collegiate seasons at Rutgers.
How much does he have left?
All eyes will be on Rice to deliver after a forgettable 2013 campaign. With issues on and off the field over the past year, there’s a target on the former Scarlet Knight’s back.
It’s up to him to return to the old Ray Rice.