The signing of All-Pro safety Earl Thomas III was supposed to be the Ravens’ biggest offseason acquisition, but putting free-agent running back Mark Ingram II on the roster might end up being the top addition.
There are several subplots heading into the 2019 season, including the development of second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson and whether the defense can play up to its No. 1 ranking of a year ago.
But the Ravens can’t win if they can’t run the ball.
When they signed Ingram to a three-year, $15 million contract in March and then selected Oklahoma State running back Justice Hill in the fourth round of April’s draft, they balanced one of the NFL’s top running games with more power and speed.
“It’s a great group, a lot of diversity,” Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss said. “It’s the strength of the group — they have a lot of different skills. Obviously, Mark is a huge addition for us. I love his versatility. I think he’s probably the most complete back in the NFL in terms of his ability to execute any run scheme, to pass protect, to run routes out of the backfield, split him out and run routes.
“I think they’ve done a really good job of working together, and I think having that diversity of skill sets kind of helps them work together even better, just from the standpoint of Gus [Edwards] as a downhill, power runner — the punishing type of runner, who you watch the film, and you tell me who is hitting who,” Weiss said of Ingram’s top backup. “And that’s kind of his specialty. Then you have Justice, who is a complete change of pace — fast guy, different type of speed.”
Of all the units on the team, only the secondary has fewer questions to be answered. Jackson has made improvements from a year ago, though it still might not be enough to get the Ravens deep into the postseason.
The defense allowed only 292.9 yards per game last season and also permitted the second-fewest points per game in the league at 17.9, just behind the Chicago Bears’ 17.7.
But two of the team’s top leaders in outside linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Eric Weddle are no longer with the team. Neither is middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, the Ravens’ top tackler from a year ago.
The Ravens, though, still have their ace: the running game. The team was ranked No. 2 in 2018, averaging 152.6 yards per game as the Ravens ran for 2,441 yards, the second most in franchise history.
And now they have Ingram.
“There’s not a play in football that you wouldn’t want to run with Mark,” Weiss said. “And I think you guys know this, too, but he’s a great person. We all know it’s not church camp. It’s pro football, but at the same time, character matters, and when your best players are great people, it makes the rest of your guys better, and I see that in our room.”
Ingram is 29, but the good news is his body didn’t take a full-time beating last season because Alvin Kamara became the New Orleans Saints’ starter and Ingram served as a closer. He had only 138 carries for 645 yards and missed the first four games because of a violation of the league’s performance-enhancing-drug policy.
The Ravens needed Ingram. Edwards played well in the second half of his rookie season and finished with 718 rushing yards on 137 carries, but he appeared tired from the pounding. With Ingram carrying the load, the Ravens have Edwards to continue to punish teams with the downhill running game in the second half of games.
The competition has already made Edwards better. He came into training camp 10 to 15 pounds lighter.
“I think we definitely have a stable group. We’re ready,” Edwards said. “We have what it takes to be ready to run the ball. A lot of people are going to be surprised with how much better we are in the passing game.”
Hill should help. He has the ability to run inside and then bounce out on the perimeter. He gives the Ravens the home-run hitter they haven’t had in years. The Ravens want to bring him along slowly, but he gives the team a change-of-pace option and a receiving threat out of the backfield.
Hill and Ingram are two new faces in the running game, but the offensive line is basically the same from a year ago. The scheme is built on combination and angle blocks, so the linemen don’t have to maintain contact long.
If Orlando Brown Jr. continues to develop in his second year, the Ravens should have two strong tackles with Brown and Ronnie Stanley on the outside and Marshal Yanda at right guard.
The running game should be set. It has to be. The verdict is still out on Jackson, and a running game will give him and young receivers Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and Miles Boykin time to develop.
Thomas will improve the secondary, but there are questions about whether young linebackers Patrick Onwuasor, Chris Board, Kenny Young, Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser are ready to step in.
However, there are no questions about the running game. They are ready to carry the load.