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Ravens training camp preview: There’s no simple solution for ‘good problems’ at running back

If there’s going to be an NFL season this year, it’ll have to start in training camp.

After an offseason upended by the coronavirus pandemic, the Ravens are scheduled to report to Owings Mills on July 28 for their first team workout of 2020. Beyond that, little is known about the lead-up to their Sept. 13 season opener. How many players will the Ravens have on their camp roster? How many preseason games, if any, will they play? How could positive COVID-19 tests affect the team?

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The NFL and the Ravens still have to figure it all out. But as practice nears, The Baltimore Sun will take a position-by-position look at the Ravens’ roster. Today, the team’s running back situation is analyzed.

Who’s back

Mark Ingram II: The three-time Pro Bowl selection should be fully recovered from the calf injury that limited him late last season. After leading the Ravens in total carries last year (202 for 1,018 yards), Ingram ranks fifth in career attempts among active NFL players.

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Gus Edwards: The former undrafted free agent is one of just three running backs ever to average at least 5.2 yards per carry over their first two years (with a minimum of 120 carries), along with Gale Sayers and Clinton Portis. Edwards, a year away from restricted free agency, could be entering his last season in Baltimore.

Justice Hill: The 2019 fourth-round pick saw his role grow over the second half of the season, getting a combined 43 touches over the Ravens’ final eight games (postseason included) after 27 in the first nine. If Hill’s playing time falls this year, he could still make a mark as a kickoff returner.

Who’s new

J.K. Dobbins: The second-round pick was one of three Football Bowl Subdivision players with 2,000 rushing yards last season. Dobbins finished with over 5,100 yards from scrimmage and fumbled just five times in his three years at Ohio State.

What to watch

The Ravens have a good problem with their ground game. But it’s a problem all the same.

Lamar Jackson broke the NFL’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback and led the league in yards per carry last season. Edwards finished third — as a backup. Ingram made the Pro Bowl. Hill emerged as the go-to option in the Ravens’ playoff loss. Dobbins was one of the draft’s top talents at the position.

How do you manage a backfield that deep and skilled?

“Well, I love good problems,” offensive coordinator Greg Roman said last month. “I think I’ve learned over the years, if you have good problems, bring them this way. And I say that unabashedly. Talented, hardworking players that love football — bring them on. And the fact that we have a lot of guys in our running back stable, if you will, just makes me excited to no end.”

A year after the Ravens ran for an NFL-record 3,296 yards, their run-first ethos is not expected to change. So long as Jackson is healthy and Roman is calling the shots, their offensive philosophy will stand apart in a league full of pass-happy attacks.

The real intrigue lies in the depth chart. Ingram, if healthy, is expected to start the season as the Ravens’ top option next to Jackson. After that, the pecking order could change week by week, or even series by series. Edwards is hyperefficient. Hill is versatile. Dobbins might be the most talented running back on the roster.

Playing time will be a talking point. The Ravens led the NFL, by far, in rushing attempts last season (596), but a less efficient attack could change their approach. So could a season with fewer blowouts. Few position battles around NFL training camps will be more intriguing.

“We’ll find ways to make it work, for sure,” Roman said. “To have that kind of backfield is a blessing. We definitely want to get into training camp and work through it and kind of evolve as we go. As far as how we are actually going to deploy them, who we are going to emphasize [and] how, I think that’s going to happen on the fly every day in training camp, and [we’ll] get a better feel for that. But I love problems like that. I mean that sincerely.”

X-factor

General manager Eric DeCosta has compared the Ravens’ depth at running back to what the team had at tight end last year. Nick Boyle, Mark Andrews and Hayden Hurst all played between 40% and 70% of the offensive snaps in 2019, and the team ran nearly 400 plays with two tight ends and over 80 plays with three tight ends, according to Sharp Football Stats.

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But the Ravens haven’t embraced that power-in-numbers approach at running back. With Jackson a constant running threat, the Ravens wanted to fill their backfield last year with more power, not more speed. So while Pro Bowl fullback Patrick Ricard played often, Ingram, Edwards and Hill never shared the field.

“When you use a running back and a fullback, it gives you the threat of both run and pass,” NFL Network analyst and former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew said in a May interview. “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.”

Dobbins’ diverse skill set could lead to an evolution in Roman’s running back usage. Ingram is a solid receiver out of the backfield, and Hill showed his ability there toward the end of last season. The New England Patriots have found success with two-back sets over the years. The Browns are another potential model; after Kareem Hunt returned from suspension last year, Cleveland used him creatively in formations with Pro Bowl running back Nick Chubb.

Could the Ravens follow their lead? It would certainly help spread the share of snaps. But it won’t take hold unless it helps the offense, too.

Roster projection

Before Ingram’s injury in Week 16, the Ravens went into every game last season with three running backs active. After Dobbins’ addition, and with game day rosters bumped up from 46 players to 48, it’s possible the Ravens could go to four.

DeCosta has reiterated that he expects Ingram, Edwards, Hill and Dobbins to all make the team this season. Health is his top concern at the position.

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“They take hits,” DeCosta said in May. “They get soft-tissue injuries, and it’s very, very, very hard to finish the season without those guys being very healthy.”

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