Ahead of the 2006 NFL draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars did not need another running back. They already had Fred Taylor, who was coming off an injury-shortened season but had rushed for over 1,200 yards each of the previous three years. They had Alvin Pearman, a third-down back and returner. And they had LaBrandon Toefield, a reserve who’d started two games in 2005.
They took UCLA’s Maurice Jones-Drew in the second round anyway.
“Man, when I got drafted there, it was kind of like, ‘Wow, all right. I know they want me to return punts and kicks, but I want to play running back,’ ” he recalled in a telephone interview recently. “So it was like, ‘How do I find a way to get on this field and make plays?’ ”
It’s the unexpected, uncomfortable question the Ravens now face. Powered by an exotic ground game, dual-threat quarterback and elite offensive line, they ended 2019 with the NFL’s single-season rushing record. They had a Pro Bowl running back, an uber-productive backup and a fourth-round pick coming on strong.
Then they drafted Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins with the No. 55 overall pick.
One reason, general manager Eric DeCosta told season-ticket holders last week, was injuries; starter Mark Ingram II suffered a calf strain in Week 16, limiting him in the playoffs and further convincing DeCosta of how vulnerable lead running backs are to injury. Another reason was talent; Dobbins was the right player at the right price, a Ravens maxim.
“We’re a team that likes to run the football, so having running backs is really, really important,” DeCosta said April 24, after the Ravens drafted one in the second round for the first time in 12 years. “This was a guy that was, in my opinion, one of the very best in college football this year. … He fits us, and I think he’s going to be a guy that is going to be a dangerous player for us and give us the depth to do what we like to do.”
Ingram, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill might not have expected an arrival like Dobbins’. The Ravens drafted a running back before a wide receiver. They didn’t even take an edge rusher. But with the team’s timeshare now a little more complicated, Jones-Drew said it’s on the running backs themselves to make the most of a crowded room.
He considers himself fortunate. When he arrived in Jacksonville, Taylor welcomed him as if he were family. “He was like, ‘Dude, awesome,’ ” Jones-Drew recalled. Both knew better than to undermine the other. In meetings, the veteran helped explain the offense’s terminology. In public, the rookie kept his personal goals modest.
Jones-Drew took to heart a message from Jaguars running backs coach Kennedy Pola (now Kennedy Polamalu): “Look, playmakers are going to get on the field regardless. Force us to put you on the field.”
“Every day we went out there, it was about putting your best foot forward ... if it’s in the blocking without the ball, running routes, with the ball in your hands, whatever you can do. Every day, you couldn’t be off your game,” said Jones-Drew, now an NFL Network analyst.
“I think that's the best way to play football. You never want to get complacent. I know everyone's watching the [Michael] Jordan documentary [ESPN’s “The Last Dance”] right now ... but that's how I felt. Every day, you had to go out there and literally be the best player you could be every day. And the lead dog is a future Hall of Famer, so you had to go out and go catch him while trying to fend off everyone else or moving your way up the totem pole.”
Jacksonville’s 2006 season ground to a halt after quarterback Byron Leftwich’s season-ending ankle injury, but its two-headed backfield ran wild. Taylor and Jones-Drew combined for 2,087 rushing yards — more than Ingram, Edwards and Hill had last season — and 678 receiving yards. While Taylor set a career high for yards per carry and topped 1,100 rushing yards for the sixth time, Jones-Drew finished third in the NFL in kickoff return average.
Even with a volume of carries (502) that would’ve ranked second last year, behind the Ravens, there were only so many to go around. Pearman was relegated to mostly punt return duty. Toefield appeared in just four games. They combined for 29 carries and two catches, after 75 and 35 in 2005, respectively.
Jones-Drew sees similarities between that Jaguars depth chart and the Ravens’: Ingram, like Taylor, will enter the season as a 30-year-old starter coming off an injury. (Like Taylor, he’s also publicly embraced the team’s new “young bull.” ) Dobbins is a top-60 pick like Jones-Drew, drafted to add a new dimension on offense. The Ravens even feature a fullback, Patrick Ricard, as Jacksonville did.
Their blessing — or curse — is having maybe two other running backs who are more talented and valuable than Pearman. Edwards, a restricted free agent after 2020, finished third in the NFL last season in yards per carry (5.3) and, maybe more impressively, gashed the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 17 for 120 yards without quarterback Lamar Jackson as a running mate.
Hill had an uneven first three months before flashing his receiving chops late in the year, and he could contend for the kickoff return job in 2020.
“I’ve always been a big proponent of: Just get as much talent as possible, then let those guys compete,” Jones-Drew said. “And whoever’s the starter is the starter, and then the other guys rotate in and they make plays. And I think that is, from the organizational standpoint, ‘We’re just trying to get as many good running backs as possible because, [in] the AFC North, we have to run the ball down your throat.’ And you have to beat people up. And that’s what Baltimore wants to do.”
The challenge for coach John Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman will be making the most of the foursome’s diverse talents. In an interview with the team website last month, DeCosta indicated that each back would have a role in 2020.
With the coronavirus pandemic limiting practice time for rookies, Jones-Drew said he expects Ingram and Edwards to start the season atop the depth chart again. Jones-Drew, who has kept in touch with Ingram this offseason since they covered the scouting combine for the NFL Network, downplayed any lingering worries about his calf injury. “It takes time to heal, but once they heal, you’re good,” he said.
DeCosta has compared the Ravens’ formidable running back depth with what they had at tight end last year, when Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst all played between 40% and 70% of the offense’s snaps. But the positions’ usage in 2019 was fundamentally different. According to Sharp Football Stats and a review of lineups last season, the Ravens ran over 300 plays with two tight ends. They never put two running backs on the field together.
Roman is not opposed to two-back formations; he often unleashed Ricard as a punishing lead blocker for Jackson and Co. in the Ravens’ read-option attack. But if the team had a “Pony” package (two running backs), it kept it in the stables. The Ravens were ruthlessly efficient because they were utterly unpredictable. Sending out, say, Ingram with Hill might have amounted to a tell.
“When you use a running back and a fullback, it gives you the threat of both run and pass,” Jones-Drew said. “When it's two tailbacks, it may be a run, but you're not going to have a lead blocker in front of them and gain an extra gap.”
While “11” personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers) has become the default package for modern offenses, some teams have made two-back sets work, if only for a season or two. In 2016, the Patriots had an NFL-high 368 offensive snaps (23 per game) with two running backs on the field, according to ESPN. They finished the season with one of the league’s most efficient offenses and the Lombardi Trophy.
Last year, the Cleveland Browns paired Nick Chubb with Kareem Hunt, a dangerous receiving threat, upon Hunt’s Week 10 return from suspension. In their first two games together, against the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns averaged 7.2 yards per play on 49 Pony snaps, according to Field Level Media. On their 85 others? Just 3.7 yards per play.
“We see how defenses are playing, and we adjust accordingly,” then-Cleveland coach Freddie Kitchens said of the two-back approach in December. “When you can run the ball to either side, there really is no strength to the formations from a run-game standpoint, and then you can release both guys out of the backfield. Both of them have good hands and can make plays with the ball. It goes unnoticed that both are excellent pass protectors.”
Could Roman’s unconventional offense, with its pistol formations and tight end-heavy alignments, adopt a similar approach? Dobbins has a promising skill set as a receiver, but he didn’t run an expansive route tree at Ohio State. Ingram and Hill are solid options out of the backfield. Edwards is still developing.
The Ravens’ needs, according to Jones-Drew, are more basic. The “easiest thing to do in football,” he said, is handing the ball off; the hard part is having at least two running backs who can survive a marathon season.
And after last year, the Ravens didn’t mind spending a second-round pick on a prospect who might be better than the three they already had.
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“I always try to say football is checkers, not chess,” Jones-Drew said. “It really is, because it’s simple: I’m going to give the best player on my team the ball as many times as possible. But you can make it look like chess when you have those guys in the backfield with Lamar Jackson. And you can make that backfield look like something crazy.”