The running back position in Baltimore was a rollercoaster in 2017. Kenneth Dixon went from likely sophomore breakout to suspended and eventually lost for the season due to injury. The Ravens made Danny Woodhead a priority in free agency and his debut was somehow shorter than a Dean Pees’ retirement. Run game success wasn’t looking terribly probable, then Alex Collins emerged and sparked a ground attack that finished 11th in the NFL.
So where does the unit go from here? Retaining run game maestro Greg Roman was the pertinent first step in building off last year’s success. With the scheme intact, depth at the position, and problems everywhere else on offense, it would make sense for the team to use their resources elsewhere this offseason. I’ve also seen counter arguments that the position lacks an upper echelon talent and if that is attainable, the team should consider it.
Regardless of what they decide, the foundation laid will allow this to remain one of the team’s bright spots in 2018.
Let’s take a look at the roster as it currently stands.
Exclusive rights free agents
Unrestricted free agents
Needs – None?
Collins was a revelation in his first season in Baltimore. His feet, burst and relentless running style gave identity and life to a lifeless offense. His emergence is the main reason I’m team #NoRB this offseason. At just 23-years-old and under team control for at least 2 more seasons, it will be interesting to see how much potential growth Collins has.
(Man, how much different does this overview go if the Ravens decided to call up Jeremy Langford instead?)
Woodhead spent much of his 2017 sidelined with a nasty hamstring injury. With so little cap space, his name has began to come up as a potential cap casualty (1.8 million in savings pre-June 1, 2.25 million post-June 1). Despite the emergence of Collins, the issues that led the Ravens to prioritize Woodhead last offseason still exist. He’s still the only trusted pass protector in the backfield. On a team void of weapons, he remains a viable piece that you can move around the field. Maybe the team drafts a player with those skills but barring that, I think the team would be best served retaining Woodhead.
Dixon is this group’s wildcard. As I wrote about here, he remains maybe the most talented skill position player the team has. Much like Collins, Dixon is a load to tackle but he’s more elusive and more of a natural receiver. Dixon closed 2016 showing glimpses of a future three-down back. I’d personally give him every opportunity to regain that form in 2018. Now obviously with the injury and suspension you have to tread with caution. He must work his way back physically and earn trust off the field, but if he can do those things the combo of Collins and Dixon fit the mold of past Raven run games.
The numbers may not necessarily show it, but Buck Allen continues to improve as a football player, particularly in the way he finishes runs. His use in the backfield with Collins was an interesting and successful wrinkle to the offense. While not a standout guy in any phase, he’s capable in every facet. He’ll remain at worst a useful player in 2018 in what will be a contract year for him.
Even though my brand is team #NoRB, I begrudgingly must look at both sides of the argument. If the Ravens desire to add to the position, one would imagine it’s because they want a different style of player to complement what they have. This is a good and deep group but it does lack a game breaker.
Just something to keep an eye on throughout the process.
Free Agent Options
Anthony Sherman – Did the Ravens not use a fullback much last season because of scheme or because they didn’t have a natural one? Roman’s lead running games prior to this season featured a FB far more often. Because fullbacks are like Blockbuster Video in 2018 I wouldn’t expect Sherman to be very expensive. Considering the versatility and price of FB/DL Patrick Ricard I don’t see this signing happening, but it’s an option.
John Kuhn – see above
Alfred Morris – Let’s paint an ugly picture, Dixon gets suspended again after Woodhead has already been cut and the team didn’t draft a running back. Morris could be a cost-effective grinder type of back…That story I just had to create to find a 3rd free agent fit is exactly why the Ravens shouldn’t be adding to this position in free agency.
Derrius Guice, RB LSU – Guice is a battering ram-type of back with good speed. He’s not terribly elusive and not a consistent home run threat but flashes in both areas. His forty-yard dash time will be one of the most anticipated during the combine as he’s been rumored to run in the 4.4 range. Some even prefer him over Saquon Barkley because of his vision as a runner. While I don’t fall into that camp, Guice is an immediate and quality NFL starter.
Projection: 1st round
Sony Michel, RB Georgia – Michel is another back who shows terrific burst. He makes quick cuts to elude defenders while also being able to run over them. On film he looks NFL ready as a pass protector and is very comfortable as a receiver. If the Ravens did decide they want to move on from Woodhead and don’t trust Dixon, Michel would be the ideal early-round target.
Projection: 2nd round
Ronald Jones, RB USC – Jones fits the gamebreaker mold. Because of his height and slighter build, he doesn’t generate a great deal of power but he’s adequate on interior runs. Where he will make his money in the NFL will be in the open field where his impressive elusiveness can be on full display. Jones could get extra looks in this draft from teams looking for their Alvin Kamara, a tandem back they can move around.
Projection: 2nd round
Rashaad Penny, RB San Diego State – Penny is a pretty complete back with the frame to be a bell cow, but the elusiveness to play in the open field. He has natural feel as a runner and receiver, and is a purposeful player with little wasted movement, though he could stand to run a little lower to generate more power. He’ll give you special teams value as well as he’s an impressive kick returner. Penny looks like he could be one of the best values of the entire draft.
Projection: 3rd round
Dimitri Flowers, FB Oklahoma – He just feels like a fit in Roman’s concepts. Traditional fullback, inline tight end, detached, in motion, hell he could even take direct snaps. Flowers doesn’t stand out in any area but he could be a useful supplementary piece to an offense. Those play action drags off bootlegs could become a lot more successful with Flowers breaking open field tackles. For a team trying to further establish themselves as an imposing run offense, Flowers could certainly help.
Projection: 5th round