In 2011, two important things happened in Mark Ingram II’s career. In late April, the New Orleans Saints took the Heisman Trophy-winning running back with the No. 28 overall pick in the NFL draft. Then, in late December, teammate Drew Brees broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old single-season passing record.
No season might have offered a better line of demarcation between the old and the new. The NFL that Ingram entered in 2011 had never had more than one quarterback throw for 5,000 yards in a season. Only two, Marino and Brees, had ever thrown for that many. By the end of Ingram’s rookie year, membership had doubled. Tom Brady and Matthew Stafford were in the club, too.
Ingram spent the first eight years of his career in the epicenter of a passing boom that changed how offenses attacked, how defenses were coached and how rosters were built. But it did not change everything. Seemingly every offseason, Ingram recalled Tuesday, there was a new running back on the Saints roster. The front office had to invest in the position.
“There’s always going to be somebody younger trying to come in,” Ingram said during a conference call with Baltimore reporters. “They’re always looking for new talent, new people at every position.”
As the Ravens enter next week’s draft looking to upgrade one of the league’s top rosters, their big board could be a litmus test for running back value in an NFL increasingly skeptical of it. Here is a team that finished last season with 3,296 rushing yards, a single-season record, and approaches every draft pick with a best-player-available credo. But if the Ravens take a second-rate wide receiver prospect instead of a top-tier running back, is it because of team needs? Perceived value? A strategic tweak?
The answer will be inscrutable, as unknowable (for now) as whether general manager Eric DeCosta thinks more highly of Georgia running back D’Andre Swift or, say, South Carolina wide receiver Bryan Edwards. But speculation has already begun.
In an early-March mock draft, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, a former Ravens scout, had the team taking Swift at No. 28 overall. Several top targets at positions of need — inside linebacker, edge rusher, defensive line, offensive line — were already off the board in Jeremiah’s projection, so he went with whom he believed to be the best player available: Swift, a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer.
In late March, NFL Network analytics expert Cynthia Frelund published her second analytics-based 2020 mock draft, which relies on a data-driven model that accounts for prospects’ expected value, team strengths and weaknesses, league-wide coaching trends and historical draft results. In both mock drafts, Frelund’s model identified the same player who would “maximize” the Ravens’ potential next season: Swift. (Oklahoma inside linebacker Kenneth Murray was the most recent runner-up.)
The projection would make for a crowded depth chart. Ingram is coming off a Pro Bowl season. Gus Edwards averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick in 2019, flashed his versatility late in the season. But Frelund said Swift, also a talented receiver out of the backfield, would be a safe investment. Maybe he’s just necessary depth, she explained. But maybe he’s Josh Jacobs, who rushed for 1,150 yards as a rookie for the Raiders last season.
“If your team is optimized to run the ball and you want to make sure you’re fortifying the thing that your team does so you can select for success, because injury is real, you can’t bank on people being available or not,” Frelund said in an interview. “Some people are more of an injury risk than others. But you kind of can’t predict that. So if your team needs the run, then you should probably get a running back.”
If the Ravens’ 14-win season revealed the difficulty of stopping a dominant ground game — or at least a dominant dual-threat quarterback — this offseason has shown how unsustainable success there can be. With the Los Angeles Rams' release last month of Todd Gurley, who in 2018 had signed a four-year, $60 million contract extension, none of the 22 running backs taken in the 2015 draft were still with the team that had drafted them.
Buyer’s remorse elsewhere is rampant. The Arizona Cardinals last month traded David Johnson, a running back paid like a star but producing like a backup, and a second-round pick to the Houston Texans in a salary dump that somehow netted All-Pro wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell, who signed a four-year, $52.5 million contract last offseason, was reportedly on the trade block after a career-worst season.
Analytics show that running backs exert little influence on the success of their team’s running game. Success is more dependent on offensive line play — the Ravens, for instance, had three Pro Bowl players at the position last year — and the number of defenders near the line of scrimmage. Jackson’s mere presence in a zone-read attack can nullify stacked boxes.
“To me, offense is all about inputs and outputs,” Eric Eager, a data scientist for Pro Football Focus who has studied the replaceability of NFL running backs, said in an interview. “And if, let’s say, Lamar Jackson’s twice as good as Joe Flacco, the offense is not twice as good. The offense ends up being, like, four times as good. Whereas if D’Andre Swift is twice as good as Mark Ingram, the offense might be 1.2 times better, which is fine and good — if you don’t have to pay twice as much.”
The problem, Eager said, is that “there’s a ceiling on how elite you can be running the football.” Heading into Week 14 last season, he found that on run plays, the Ravens were averaging 0.07 Expected Points Added, a statistic that measures a play’s impact on the score of a game. Their success was notable not only because they were more efficient running the ball than most teams were passing, but also because only 28 teams in 14 years had ever finished with a positive EPA on run plays over a full season.
Even the contributions of running backs to a team’s passing game can be overstated. An analysis by The Athletic last summer found that passes to running backs “are by far the least efficient type of pass”; while useful for helping quarterbacks avoid sacks, they were generally less successful than even passes to tight ends.
“If you go out of your way to throw [running backs] the ball, in lieu of throwing the ball to tight ends or wide receivers, that's not good,” Eager said. “But if a play breaks down and your running back just so happens to be good at catching the ball, that's fine. That's good. That's better than what would've happened otherwise.”
Baltimore Ravens Insider
Running backs might already have joined statuesque, pro-style quarterbacks and run-stopping defensive linemen as devalued draft assets. Jeremiah said in a conference call Thursday that with the increased reliance on analytics across the NFL, running back value has been “a topic of conversation for a while now.” At certain positions, he said, it’s easier to win with less investment.
“Drafting a running back high is going to get a lot of criticism for a lot of folks,” Jeremiah acknowledged, but he still believes in the position’s importance. Swift is Jeremiah’s top-ranked running back and No. 16 overall prospect. Three other running backs — LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins — rank among his top 40.
On PFF’s big board, no running back has ranked higher than No. 60 since 2018, when Saquon Barkley was the No. 2 overall pick and the site’s No. 11 prospect. Over two strong years with the New York Giants, Barkley has averaged 4.8 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per catch. He also hasn’t transformed their offense. In hindsight, Eager said, “maybe ... we wouldn’t have advised him to be selected in the top 10. Maybe even not in the first round.”
No front office might have a more nuanced philosophy on the position than the Ravens. They finished with the NFL’s most efficient rushing and passing offense last season, according to Football Outsiders, despite flouting conventional wisdom with a run-first attack. They also became darlings in the analytics community for their aggressiveness on fourth down and in going for 2-point conversions.
What does the team value in a running back? In a predraft conference call earlier this month, DeCosta didn’t offer much other than the requirements for the job: big, strong, physical, durable, intelligent. He said there are running backs in the first round who can help, and there are running backs in the seventh round who can help.
Where the Ravens pick one — if they even pick one at all — could say a lot. It just might take a while to figure out what it means, exactly.
“Running back value is very hotly contested, right?” Frelund said. “And some people have been like, ‘Analytics say that running backs don’t matter, or that blah, blah, blah.’ Well, I would argue that analytics is a strategy, so if your coach’s strategy is to run the ball a lot, then having depth at a position that you utilize and that your team is optimized for, that’s actually quite valuable. Now, should you necessarily overpay a running back? No. But you probably shouldn’t overpay most positions.”