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Ravens position review: After record-setting season, running backs look to finish stronger in 2020

After glimpsing the awesome potential of a running attack built around quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens began their preparations for the 2019 season with an eye on tailoring a perfect backfield to complement their franchise player.

They succeeded, building an offense that shattered the 41-year-old record for most rushing yards in a season. Running back Mark Ingram II made the Pro Bowl in his first season with the Ravens, and he’s expected to be the team’s No. 1 option again in 2020. Gus Edwards and Justice Hill are also expected to return to fill out one of the team’s most stable and productive position groups.

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2019 in review

After Jackson took over at quarterback midway through the 2018 season, the Ravens averaged an astonishing 229.6 rushing yards per game in his first seven starts. Their primary ball carriers during that surge were Edwards, an undrafted rookie, and Kenneth Dixon, a former fourth-round draft pick who’d tantalized with his talent but had struggled with injuries and off-field troubles.

Coach John Harbaugh promoted Greg Roman to offensive coordinator, believing no one was better equipped to craft an attack around Jackson’s unique gifts. But general manager Eric DeCosta also sought more speed and versatility for a backfield that had leaned toward power in 2018.

Heading into free agency, the Ravens weren’t necessarily linked to Ingram, the 2009 Heisman Trophy winner who’d played eight seasons for the New Orleans Saints. But when Ingram was available at a modest price — three years, $15 million — they pounced. As a rugged, efficient runner with above-average blocking and receiving skills, he fit their profile.

The Ravens then added another third-down option in the draft when they used a fourth-round pick on Hill, widely viewed as the fastest running back in the 2019 class. With Edwards still on hand as a developing power runner, they had the mix they wanted behind Jackson.

It’s hard to quibble with the results. Ingram rambled for 49 yards the first time he touched the ball as a Raven and averaged 5 yards per carry on the way to his third 1,000-yard season. He maintained his excellence at the goal line with 10 touchdown runs and added a career-high five touchdown receptions. He rated even better by analytic measures that rewarded him for making the most of each carry. The only shadow on Ingram’s season was the calf strain he suffered in Week 16, which ultimately limited him in the Ravens’ divisional-round loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Edwards ranked among the most productive No. 2 backs in the league, averaging 5.3 yards per carry and rushing for a career-high 130 yards as the team’s starter in a Week 17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hill could not force his way into a substantial role early in the season and averaged just 3.9 yards on 58 carries. But he did make several important third-down catches late in the season, reminding us of the big-play potential he flashed during training camp.

Depth chart

Mark Ingram II

Skinny: Ingram lived up to expectations as a versatile on-field force and a vocal locker-room presence. Only that calf injury undermined a banner season for the 30-year-old running back, and the Ravens will count on him as a featured offensive star again in 2020.

Contract status: Ingram will make a $4 million base salary in the second season of the three-year, $15 million free-agent deal he signed. The Ravens could save $5 million on their 2021 cap if they move on from the veteran after next season.

Gus Edwards

Skinny: Edwards made subtle improvements to his power-oriented game, running effectively outside the tackles while maintaining elite per-carry production. He’s a capable starter thriving in a No. 2 role, and the Ravens will look for continued growth in his third season.

Contract status: Edwards is an exclusive-rights free agent because he has only two years of service time.

Justice Hill

Skinny: Despite his impressive acceleration, Hill did not break a run longer than 18 yards in his rookie season. But he did show potential as a third-down back with a few impressive catch-and-run plays late in the season, and the Ravens remain optimistic about his future.

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Contract status: Hill is entering the second season of the four-year, $3.2 million deal he signed as a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State.

Offseason questions

1. Can Ingram maintain his level as he enters his 30s?

Ingram turned 30 in December and plays a position notorious for grinding down talented performers. He operates between the tackles, often powering through the first hits he takes. He suffered a late-season leg injury that left him diminished in the Ravens’ season-ending defeat.

Given these factors, it’s fair to ask how long he can maintain his peak form.

On the other hand, Ingram is not your typical 30-year-old running back. Because the Saints always spread the wealth in their offense, he’s never carried more than 230 times in a season (for context, Jamal Lewis exceeded 300 carries in four of the six seasons he played for the Ravens). With Jackson and Edwards taking on significant carries, Ingram will not be asked to serve as a workhorse in Baltimore. Before the ill-timed calf injury, there was no indication he’d lost any zest in his legs.

Ingram has already said he’s hungry to write a different ending for the 2020 season, and he gave the Ravens plenty of reasons to believe he’ll continue to thrive.

2. Can Edwards continue to add variety to his game as he auditions to become a No. 1 back?

Harbaugh has said he sees Edwards as a starting running back who just happens to play behind Ingram in the Ravens’ stacked backfield. Edwards built on his surprise breakout, maintaining his efficiency despite having just four games all year in which he carried more than 10 times. His run grade was actually higher than Ingram’s, according to Pro Football Focus.

Edwards almost never loses yardage, but it’s wrong to portray him as a one-dimensional pounder. He shows patience and quick feet when probing for the right gap. Roman has also said he feels comfortable with the 6-foot-1, 238-pound Edwards as a pass blocker. We haven’t seen much of him as a receiver — just nine catches on 10 targets over two seasons.

The Ravens have been thrilled with Edwards’ contributions and development, but we don’t yet know if they view him as a long-term fixture who could start in a post-Ingram era. After he carried 21 times in Week 17, he touched the ball just three times in the playoff loss to the Titans, suggesting the Ravens still don’t see him as a top option when they’re trying to rally from a significant deficit. Will they give him more varied opportunities in his third season?

3. Can Hill translate practice flashes into consistent production?

The rookie from Oklahoma State immediately passed the eye test, darting around veteran defenders during his first NFL training camp and inspiring hopes that he could be the shifty, change-of-pace back the Ravens had long coveted.

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Then the regular season came, and Hill hardly touched the ball for weeks at a time. Harbaugh said he tried to bolster the rookie’s confidence during those lean times, telling him a big run was just around the corner.

It’s not as if Hill exploded with a 100-yard game at the end of the season, but he did show glimpses — three catches for 32 yards in Week 16, 10 carries for 39 yards in Week 17, four catches while playing 47 offensive snaps in the playoff loss to the Titans. His second season will be pivotal, and all indications are that the Ravens will give him chances to blossom into the player they thought they drafted.

Possible additions

The Ravens are unlikely to use more than three spots on their active roster for running backs, but they usually carry at least one on their practice squad. Paul Perkins and Byron Marshall held those spots at the end of last season, and the Ravens will surely bring an array of backs to training camp as they again search for depth. That’s how they found Edwards in 2018.

Barring injury, however, the Ravens probably won’t spend significant capital or a precious draft pick on a position group that’s well stocked.

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