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Ravens positional review: Running back

It was a good year to be a Ravens running back — that is, if you were playing with Lamar Jackson. The fortunes of the team’s rushing offense seemed to fall and then rise with its quarterbacks, as the much-anticipated Joe Flacco-Alex Collins partnership ceded at midseason to Jackson and Gus Edwards.

The Ravens ran like few teams did in 2018. But given the shelf life of NFL running backs and the unpredictability of the offense’s direction under Jackson, next season’s production (and producers) could vary just as wildly.

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2018 in review

The Ravens entered the season expecting continued production from one out-of-nowhere star and another dependable backup. That didn’t happen. Then they ended the season with the NFL’s best running game, their attack partly powered by yet another unlikely starter and an oft-forgotten veteran.

It was, all in all, a strange year for the Ravens’ rushing offense. Even with the return of Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda, the line struggled to open up holes for Collins, the Week 1 starter, and Buck Allen. A year after averaging 116 yards per game, 11th most in the NFL, the Ravens rushed for 96 yards or fewer in five of their first nine games. Their high during that stretch was a 123-yard game against the Tennessee Titans, and even that required 35 carries.

All throughout the first half of the season, coach John Harbaugh insisted production was just around the corner. Asked about the team’s woeful yards per carry, among the worst marks in the league, he would cite the Ravens’ lack of big plays, which he believed would come.

For some time, they did not. Collins bore little resemblance to the hard-running, hole-finding sensation he was in 2017, when he finished the season as football’s best Irish dancer and Pro Football Focus' top-rated running back. He averaged a full yard less per carry (3.6). His longest run all season went for 19 yards. He never topped 68 yards in a game.

In December, Collins was placed on injured reserve, a rather sudden end to a year marred by a bothersome knee that Harbaugh had said would heal. Allen continued to play, but by then, he, too, had been relegated to a largely observational role on offense. He finished the season with 2.7 yards per carry, a career low, 110 rushing yards and 196 receiving yards, the second-worst marks in his four years in Baltimore.

When Jackson took over for Flacco in Week 11 as the Ravens’ starting quarterback, their season changed. So did the opportunities for their running backs. Eschewing their pass-first philosophy on offense, the Ravens often befuddled opponents with an unusual mix of personnel (a fast quarterback and downhill runners) and schemes (pro-style and college spread-style concepts).

Of the running backs, Edwards was the greatest beneficiary. He was also probably the least likely. Undrafted out of Rutgers, Edwards did not make the Ravens’ season-opening 53-man roster and was not promoted from the practice squad until October.

But after rushing for 115 yards in a win against the Cincinnati Bengals, the start of the Ravens’ turnaround, “Gus the Bus” became the lead back, a soft-spoken rookie whose between-the-tackles approach complemented Jackson’s dangerous speed. Edwards averaged under 4 yards per carry only once after October, and he finished the season with 718 rushing yards (5.2 per carry), two touchdowns and no fumbles.

His eventual running mate: Kenneth Dixon, who went on injured reserve in mid-September and didn’t play for nearly three months. When he did return, the former fourth-round draft pick’s ability was obvious. After missing all of 2017 and 10 of the first 11 games of 2018, Dixon finished the season with 333 rushing yards and 5.6 yards per carry, a team high among regular ball carriers. He ran decisively and skillfully, unafraid to deliver a stiff arm to a linebacker or safety after bursting to the second level.

Later in the season, often in third-down situations, the Ravens also leaned on former Green Bay Packer Ty Montgomery, acquired midseason for a seventh-round pick. In six games with the Ravens, he had 10 catches — more than Edwards and Dixon’s combined total — and added 15 carries for 83 yards.

2019 outlook

New Ravens running backs coach Matt Weiss could enter training camp with a storyline recycled from last year’s coverage but with a depth chart unthinkable a year ago.

Barring a splashy free-agent signing, a top draft pick or an offseason injury, Edwards is likely to take Collins’ place as the practice-squad-player-turned-incumbent-starter. Dixon, entering the last year of his contract, should continue to see regular playing time.

Beyond that, the roster construction is still pending. Collins, whose fumbling problem was as worrisome as his lack of productivity, is a restricted free agent. Montgomery and Allen are unrestricted free agents.

The promotion of Greg Roman, who helped rejuvenate the Ravens’ running game the past two seasons, to offensive coordinator last month should change little about the team’s philosophy. While Harbaugh has preached the importance of a balanced approach, Roman’s San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills offenses were at their most effective when their running game set the table for the passing attack.

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Jackson is still far from refined as a drop-back passer, as was the case with Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco and Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo. But the former Heisman Trophy winner’s elite athleticism commands respect from defenses. For as long as Jackson’s a home run threat in the open field, he’ll make life easier for whoever he’s sharing the backfield with — just as long as defenses don’t catch up to what the Ravens want to run.

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Free-agent options

Former Steelers star Le’Veon Bell became maybe the top free agent available after Pittsburgh was unwilling to sign him to the long-term deal he desired last season. But the Ravens, despite some social media flirtations, seem unlikely to compromise general manager Eric DeCosta’s desire for a “financially responsible” salary cap by spending top dollar on a 26-year-old running back.

The market is otherwise bereft of stars; Bell was the only running back to make an NFL.com list of the offseason’s top 25 free agents. Some big names include Tevin Coleman (167 carries for 800 rushing yards and four touchdowns in 16 games last season), Mark Ingram II (138 carries for 645 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games) and Jay Ajayi (45 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns in an injury-shortened four-game season).

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