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Ravens position review: RB J.K. Dobbins is a rising star, but will Gus Edwards rejoin him in Baltimore?

The Ravens entered 2020 with one of the NFL’s deepest running back rooms. Now, even after the departure of a Pro Bowl player and team leader, the position should remain an offensive cornerstone.

It’s a youthful, talented group. J.K. Dobbins, who led all NFL running backs in yards per carry in 2020, just turned 22. Gus Edwards has had a quietly historic first three years in Baltimore. Justice Hill, only 23 and an emerging special teams piece, could see his role grow with the release of Mark Ingram II.

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In the second of a series of position reviews, The Baltimore Sun will examine the team’s running back situation. Next up is tight end and fullback.

2020 in review

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Over the first half of this past season, coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman heard a version of the same question seemingly every week: How do you decide on the running back timeshare? Ingram was coming off a 1,000-yard season. Edwards had finished second among all running backs in yards per carry. Hill had shown his versatility late in the 2019 season. And Dobbins was a second-round pick.

Over time, the situation resolved itself. Hill dealt with a thigh injury in September. Ingram hurt his ankle in October. By the time both returned to full strength, Dobbins had emerged as a home run threat and Edwards was back to bowling defenders over (and running by them, too). If one of them wasn’t on the field, the other one probably was.

Depth chart

J.K. Dobbins

Skinny: The former Ohio State star averaged 6.2 yards per carry over three standout years with the Buckeyes. In his first NFL season, he averaged 6 yards per attempt, including 6.4 over the regular season’s final seven weeks. Still, there’s room to grow as a blocker and receiver.

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Contract status: Dobbins is entering the second year of a four-year rookie contract, which has a $1.3 million salary cap hit in 2021.

Gus Edwards

Skinny: In 2018 and 2019, Edwards rushed for 718 yards (5.2 per carry) and 711 yards (5.3 per carry), respectively. His 2020 output remained eerily similar: 723 yards (5.0 yards per carry). But Edwards also finished with a career-high six touchdowns, developed into a more elusive runner and produced as a receiver.

Contract status: Edwards is a restricted free agent this offseason, meaning he’d be free to negotiate with any team. But the Ravens can submit a tender that would entitle them to match any offer sheet and, if not, potentially receive draft pick compensation.

Justice Hill

Skinny: The 2019 fourth-round draft pick had almost three times as many special teams snaps (192) as he did offensive snaps (73), and he showed a nose for the ball as a gunner. As a runner, Hill had just 12 carries in 12 games, but he averaged 5 yards per attempt. Coaches seemed to trust him on third down, too.

Contract status: Hill is entering the third year of a four-year rookie contract. He has a base salary of $850,000.

Offseason questions

1. How much do the Ravens want Gus Edwards back?

Edwards, who went undrafted out of Rutgers in 2018, has proven himself by now. According to Pro-Football-Reference, only two players in NFL history have started their career with three straight seasons of 700-plus rushing yards and at least 5 yards per carry: Cleveland Browns All-Pro running back Nick Chubb and Edwards.

With career earnings well under $2 million, Edwards has been one of the NFL’s best bargains. Now, if the Ravens want to keep him around, they’ll have to give him a raise. They have until March 18 to tender him; if they don’t, he’d hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

The Ravens could use a second-round tender, a one-year contract offer that salary cap website Over the Cap projects will be worth $3.4 million this year. Edwards could still negotiate with other teams, but the Ravens would have the right to match any offer sheet. If they decided not to, they would receive the second-round pick of Edwards’ new team.

Edwards could also receive a right-of-first-refusal tender, a one-year contract offer worth a projected $2.2 million. The Ravens would have the right to match any offer sheet Edwards signs, but they would not be compensated if they decided against doing so.

2. Will the running backs become more involved in the passing offense?

Dobbins, Edwards, Ingram and Hill had a combined 38 catches for 319 yards in 2020, just under 20 yards per game. The year before, the group averaged 22.6 receiving yards per game. New Orleans Saints star running back Alvin Kamara had 38.1 yards per game in 2019 — in the worst receiving season of his career.

The Ravens and quarterback Lamar Jackson haven’t committed to building a passing offense as prolific as the Saints’, but they still need more from their running backs. The problem is partly structural; offensive coordinator Greg Roman doesn’t call a lot of screen passes, and Jackson has struggled finding open receivers in the flats and on check-downs.

But the running backs themselves have to be additive in the aerial attack. Dobbins’ struggles with drops continued into the postseason. Edwards, after two quiet seasons as a receiver, had a career-high 13 catches for 129 yards. Hill had five catches on five targets for 20 yards, but he could again find snaps hard to come by next season.

3. How will playing time in 2021 shake out?

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Dobbins started just once as a rookie, but he’d climbed atop the depth chart by mid-December. That continued into the postseason, when he played over half of the offensive snaps in both games; Edwards, meanwhile, got 45% against the Tennessee Titans and 29% against the Buffalo Bills, with Hill a distant third.

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The Ravens adopted some two-running-back formations this past season, but not as a staple of their offense. Dobbins’ speed, agility and vision make him an ideal running mate for Jackson, but the Ravens won’t force-feed him, not when they have Edwards. If the 2020 season suggested anything about their 2021 plans, it’s that they’ll be flexible with how they split playing time.

Possible additions

Ty’Son Williams spent his rookie year on the Ravens’ practice squad after he impressed in a scrimmage during training camp. With his size (6 feet, 220 pounds), Williams could be a short-yardage option next season.

General manager Eric DeCosta is wary of running back injuries, but the Ravens don’t have a pressing need for depth at the position. Given their roster holes, it’s hard to see the front office targeting another running back in the draft. Jake Funk, an oft-injured but well-rounded player at Maryland, could be a late-round or free-agent possibility.

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