That the Ravens entertained LSU running back Derrius Guice on a predraft visit Thursday doesn’t suddenly mean that the team is determined to take a ball carrier early in next month’s draft. More than two dozen draft prospects will visit the Under Armour Performance Center in the coming weeks and not all of them will play positions that constitute major Ravens needs.
Whether running back is even a need is subject to debate.
Alex Collins, the hard-running, Irish-dancing running back who was curiously released by the Seattle Seahawks before signing with the Ravens before the start of the 2017 regular season, rushed for 973 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games (12 starts) last year. He’s the team’s clear starter.
Buck Allen is a valuable reserve who had 841 all-purpose yards and six touchdowns last season, and is a very good special teams player.
Kenneth Dixon is the wild card of the group. He showed flashes of great promise as a rookie in 2016, but he missed all of last season with a knee injury. Dixon also has already been suspended twice by the NFL, so he has much work to do to prove he can stay healthy and clean.
“I think we have a whole good group of guys,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters earlier this week at the owners meetings when asked about his running backs. “Obviously, we have a starter and Alex has proven that. He had a great year last year. He makes people miss. He breaks tackles, gets yards after contact. This is a player that makes stuff happen. He’s exciting. I know our fans love him. And we’re going to get Kenneth Dixon back. I think Buck Allen had his best year by far last year. He’s kind of growing, coming into his own as a football player. Those are three really good backs.”
What the Ravens don’t necessarily have at the position is an explosive and elusive back who could become a major threat in the passing game. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell is the gold standard, but there are plenty of other pass-catching backs around the league, such as Dion Lewis, formerly of the New England Patriots, and the Cleveland Browns’ Duke Johnson. The Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey and New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara are two examples from last year’s draft.
The Ravens lack a player who can come out of the backfield, catch a swing pass from Joe Flacco and break a few tackles on his way to a 30- or 40-yard gain. Danny Woodhead was signed last offseason to be that pass-catching threat, but he never really was healthy. He was released earlier this month and decided to retire.
Allen has good hands, but he’s averaged just over 5 yards per reception over the past two seasons. That’s probably more of a reflection of the team’s suspect downfield passing game than it is a criticism of Allen. However, he’s still not considered a home-run-hitter type of back who is going to turn many modest gains into chunk plays.
The Ravens really haven’t had that dynamic pass-catching threat out of the backfield since Ray Rice was at his best, and the 2018 draft might be an opportunity to change that.
Guice, considered by many evaluators to be the second-best running back in the draft behind Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, doesn’t necessarily fit that criteria with only 32 catches in three seasons at LSU.
However, at 5 feet 10 and 212 pounds, he does fit the mold of the punishing, north-south back that the Ravens traditionally favor. Despite spending a good part of his college career in Leonard Fournette’s shadow, Guice rushed for 2,638 yards and 26 touchdowns over his final two seasons at LSU.
Guice is considered by most pundits to be a late first-round or early-second-round pick, so barring a trade back, the Ravens’ only shot to take him might be with the 16th overall pick. The Steelers, who pick 28th overall and are looking for an heir apparent for Bell, are said to be extremely high on Guice.
Given their needs at wide receiver, tight end and along the offensive line, it seems unlikely the Ravens will use their first-round pick on a running back. This is a particularly deep and talented running back class, so the Ravens might be best served in seeing what’s still available at the position on the third day of the draft.
That’s been their recent history anyway, using fourth-round picks on Dixon in 2016, Allen in 2015 and Lorenzo Taliaferro in 2014.
“Of course, if [a running back] falls to us somewhere, we’ll take him, I’m sure,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “But I feel great about our running backs.”