Any Ravens fans following the draft on Saturday and hoping to see a later round pick used on a running back were disappointed. But how much does the team need another ball carrier?
Baltimore did add one following the draft, signing Gus Edwards, an undrafted Rutgers prospect. Other than Edwards, the Ravens presently have three tailbacks contracted: Alex Collins, last season’s bell-cow; Buck Allen, last year’s second-leading rusher; and 2016 fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon.
Only two of that group – Collins and Allen – contributed any carries in 2017, as the team’s third and fourth options, Terrance West and Danny Woodhead were released following injury-plagued seasons. One would expect the team to open the 2018 season with four tailbacks on the 53-man roster with Dixon and Crockett or even a new addition completing the group.
The omission of a RB choice in the draft should be read primarily as a sign of the front office and coaching staff’s confidence in the team’s returning backs. The team’s presumptive starter, Alex Collins, has seen his stock rise in a manner reminiscent of the Ravens’ last clear #1 back, Justin Forsett.
Like Forsett, Collins entered the league as a late-round Seahawks draft pick and was signed by the Ravens amongst little fanfare, being expected merely to make up the numbers in the RB room. Collins, similarly to his predecessor, outperformed expectations and won the starting position after capitalising on injuries to players above him on the depth chart. Although he fell just shy of a 1,000 yard season, Collins performed impressively and ended the season as Pro Football Focus’ top graded rusher in the NFL.
Collins has earned his place as the clubhouse leader, but he has deficiencies as a pass-catcher, which is where Allen and Dixon become useful. Both are superior receiving backs, and in 2017 Allen supplemented his 591 rushing yards with 250 receiving yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. Buck performed admirably in preseason and there was some optimism about his potential going into 2017. Presumably the team’s decision-makers still expect to see some of that promise realised going forward.
Of last year’s returning backs, Kenneth Dixon must surely be the one whose roster spot is most in question. After being drafted in the fourth round in 2016, there was considerable excitement about what he could bring to the team. He had an outstanding college career at Louisiana Tech, ending as the team’s all-time leader in rushing categories, as well as setting the NCAA all-time touchdown record. This generated hope amongst many Ravens fans that he could become the sort of dynamic skill position player that the team has had so few of in its history.
However, after a middling rookie year, Dixon ran afoul of the NFL’s performance enhancing drugs policy and was suspended for the first four games of the 2017 season, which he ultimately missed entirely due to injuries. Dixon’s talent will get him more chances to stake his claim, but he will surely have work to do to regain the coaching staff’s trust and work his way up the depth chart.
Edwards cannot be assessed adequately at this early stage and there is still a chance that the Ravens could add a running back before the season begins. As it stands, Baltimore’s RB situation is not one that should fill fans with confidence. All three lead backs come with flaws or caveats: Collins is not a great receiver and has only one year of impressive play – his ability to repeat it in 2018 is in question; Allen was not a particularly dynamic rusher last season and has one year remaining on his deal; Dixon has a concerning injury history and another PED transgression will incur a ten game suspension.
In the best case scenario, Collins builds on last year’s success, Allen takes a step forward and Dixon begins to demonstrate game-breaking ability whilst staying clear of injuries and suspensions.
However, as we know, the ideal outcome rarely comes to fruition over a gruelling 16-game NFL season; let’s hope that later in the year we don’t back at April with regret at the imprudence of not securing more rushing insurance.