Recently, a media outlet had ranked a little more than two dozen running backs in the NFL ahead of the Ravens’ Alex Collins. That played right into Thomas Hammock’s hands.
“I definitely use that to my advantage,” the Ravens running backs coach said. “I think I work a lot better when we have guys that have chips on their shoulders, and I think Alex Collins definitely had that chip on his shoulder.”
Collins nodded when informed of Hammock’s comment before taking aim at the low assessment of his abilities.
“It definitely motivates you because in our mind, there are not 26 other running backs better than me and [backup] Buck Allen,” he said. “We should have that chip on our shoulder, to have something to prove. Everybody out there thinks we’re the 26th [best] backs out here, and we can’t have that. We want to be Nos. 1 and 2. So that’s just our mindset going into it, to prove everybody wrong.”
The 24-year-old Collins’ defiance is not without merit. In 15 games — including 12 starts — last season, he rushed for 973 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. He finished 11th in the league in rushing yards and eighth among running backs in yards per attempt.
Collins was successful despite spending the first week on the team’s practice squad after getting waived by the Seattle Seahawks on Sept. 2, 2017. But he was not the first choice after Danny Woodhead injured his hamstring in a season-opening win against the Cincinnati Bengals. The Ravens instead promoted former Chicago Bear Jeremy Langford from the practice squad to the active roster before releasing Langford and replacing him with Collins on Sept. 17, the day before a victory over the Cleveland Browns.
Former Ravens running back Justin Forsett said Collins’ numbers this season could well exceed last season’s because he has had the benefit of spending the entire offseason and training camp in one location, soaking up the running game crafted by offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, assistant head coach Greg Roman and Hammock.
“I think he has huge potential and huge upside,” said Forsett, who will serve as a sideline reporter for the team’s on-air radio broadcast crew for road games. “He’s still young and he’s in the prime of his career, and I think the team has added more weapons on the outside that can open up some of that box, and it’s going to open up some more running lanes. So I’m excited to see what he can do with a full year.”
Collins is the undisputed starter for the first time since 2015, when he led Arkansas with 1,577 rushing yards and 20 touchdown runs. But Collins, who is backed up by Allen and Kenneth Dixon, said he can’t afford to become content with the long-awaited security he has earned.
“It’s a good feeling, but at the same time, there’s an upkeep that comes with that, and it’s all around,” he said. “Just having Buck Allen in the backfield with me, we’re pushing each other forward, and we have that healthy rotation with him and all of the other backs. So it’s good for all of us, but yeah, most definitely, there’s a comfort behind it. But at the same time, I don’t want to get complacent.”
As prolific as he has been on the ground, Collins has emerged as a target through the air. After not catching a pass in his first six games, he caught 23 for 187 yards in his final nine games — a single-season high at either the pro or college level.
Quarterback Joe Flacco said his chemistry with Collins is an ongoing process.
“I was just talking to him the other day about it on little checkdowns — just finding my eyes and things like that,” Flacco said. “As far as him really becoming a big-time receiver, I think those things will be it. He’s obviously going to be able to run by some guys out of the backfield when he might be the primary or the second-type guy. You’re going to be able to throw some screens to him and things like that.
“I think if he can pick up a handful of receptions on just little, easy checkdowns that we may have missed last year — just because we weren’t on the same page — I think he’ll turn his game to another level. He’s obviously very tough to tackle when he catches the ball, so anytime you can get the ball in his hands, it’s a plus for us.”
During the special teams portion of practice during training camp, Collins could usually be found catching balls off the Jugs machine until the team broke off into drills for the offense and defense.
“The coaches like running backs who are able to get out wide and give defenses different looks,” Collins said. “Being able to have a mismatch against a linebacker and being able to make a catch out wide really helps the offense. They’ve made it an emphasis, and so have I. It’s just something I’ve really been trying to focus on, to prove to them that I can be out wide and catch as well.”
Forsett said the 5-foot-10, 208-pound Collins’ penchant for plowing into would-be tacklers, downhill running style and bursts of speed remind him of former Dallas Cowboys running back Marion Barber.
“He’s just a tough, gritty runner,” Forsett said. “He’s not overwhelmingly big by any means, but he is stout, he is strong. Every time he runs, he’s just violent. He has extreme bursts, and he’s a physical runner.”
Collins has reined in some of his physicality against his defensive teammates, but inside linebacker Patrick Onwuasor acknowledged the difficulty of tackling Collins.
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“He’s more shifty, so you have to run your feet with Alex,” Onwuasor said. “You can’t try to break down because he will make a move and cut on you. You just want to come inside out to the ball, as we’ve been taught, and just [make] a play on it.”
Fullback Patrick Ricard said he thinks Collins will be “deadly” after having the entire offseason to ready himself.
“I just have to make my block, and Alex will make it right,” Ricard said. “He knows how to read off me, no matter what, and he’ll make plays. So I love blocking for him.”
Whether Collins will join the league’s top tier alongside the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell remains to be seen. For his part, Hammock, who helped Forsett rush for a career-high 1,266 yards and an NFL-leading 17 runs of 20-plus yards in 2014, isn’t concerned with statistics.
“All that stuff, to me, is so subjective,” he said. “I can say somebody is a top-five back, and it’s just somebody’s opinion. All I know is, if you go out there, and you produce at a high level, people will have no choice but to respect you.”
Collins isn’t talking numbers either. But his objective is clear.
“I always want to do better than what I did the last year, and to have extra games to do that, it’s like, in my mind, I’m thinking that the sky’s the limit, and I’m going to try to surpass that by a lot,” he said. “My main goal is to beat out everything I did last year.”