The Ravens find themselves in a peculiar position heading into the 2011 season. They must improve an underwhelming running game that averaged 3.8 yards per carry last season good for a league ranking of 28. Surprisingly a large chunk of blame for a relatively inept rushing attack is tied directly to a lack of physicality. The line just wasn’t able to impose their will on opponents they way they had in the past. We even saw a failed late year attempt to jolt the waning physicality by inserting Oniel Cousins into the starting lineup.
Now obviously Jared Gaither’s back injury prevented the Ravens from assembling their offensive front the way they’d like and we saw the ramifications of that. Recently promoted offensive line coach Andy Moeller is charged with revitalizing that unit.
But who will be running behind them when the dust settles?
Ray Rice is the unquestioned lead back. While he remained productive his average per carry dipped more than 20% (5.3 to 4.0) from the previous year. Rice is a patient runner but he often struggled to find significant running lanes.
Willis McGahee spent last season as Rice’s backup but it’s a virtual certainty he won’t return given a cap figure of 8.5 million and a salary figure north of $6 million. Unless McGahee accepts a pay cut to stay, who the No. 2 back will be is a bit of a mystery. The available options for Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron are largely unproven sporting a combined 11 NFL carries.
2011 draftee Anthony Allen shows promise. At Georgia Tech last season he ran for 1,316 yards and 7 touchdowns. He’s a big bruising back who runs hard and hits the hole quickly but he won’t make people miss in space and he’s not extremely explosive. That said he has more then adequate speed for his size and his legs are like relentless pistons. His learning curve will be transitioning from the option to a pro style offense but he certainly has potential.
Curtis Steele is an intriguing practice squad holdover. He was the preseason rushing leader in 2010 with 83 yards on 22 carries. He ended his college career with back to back 1,200 yard seasons and 22 touchdowns during that span. He brings a nice short area burst, solid vision, and really good hands. He’s probably more comfortable in space but he’s shown the ability to run hard inside and absorb contact. He’s a real sleeper that could find himself on the 53 man roster when the team suits up against Pittsburgh.
Jalen Parmele had a tough 2010 season. It started in the preseason when he carried the ball 24 times for only 29 yards. He showed such promise the prior season as a returner sporting a 31.4 yard average on 9 returns yet in 2010 he was plagued by inconsistency and indecisiveness until finally David Reed took over as the teams kick returner. He returned after David Reed went down with an injury and he did a solid job. It would be nice to see that burst, decisiveness and toughness return more consistently this coming season.
Matt Lawrence is coming off a knee injury that sidelined him all of last season. He was a surprise on the Ravens 2009 53 man roster. He’s another big physical runner with solid speed for his size but he made his presence felt on special teams. He had 16 special team tackles in 2009. How he returns from injury will be another interesting storyline with this group.
If the Ravens decide they’d like to add some more experience to the backfield there is a plethora of options on the open market. Jason Snelling, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Mewelde Moore, Cadillac Williams, Kevin Smith, Jerome Harrison, Clinton Portis and Julius Jones would all offer that. However, the Ravens may be more inclined to let the guys already on the roster compete before reaching out to a more accomplished veteran.
Fullback is a position Le’Ron McClain manned last season. He’s a physical player who makes his presence felt as a blocker and runner but he’s also questioned his future with the team and publicly campaigned for carries. Generally speaking the position of fullback in the NFL has grown progressively less relevant. This may lower the price tag for a guy like McClain unless someone views him as a tailback. Mcgahee’s likely departure would open up some carries for McClain yet it remains to be seen if his antics have knocked him out of favor with the team.
For the moment Jason Mckie is the only other fullback on the roster but upgrades are available on the free agent market. Veterans Vonta Leach, John Kuhn, Tony Richardson, Lawrence Vickers and Mike Karney are all available. Undrafted rookie fullback Henry Hynoski would also be a nice option.
The storylines with this backfield in motion are worth watching. As the Ravens face an uncharacteristic bounce back year for the running game it will be interesting to see how many new faces we see and how many holdovers take advantage of their opportunities.