Ravens running back Mark Ingram is already an outlier, but he has no plans of slowing down.
The oldest player in the NFL to rush for 1,000 yards last season — Houston’s Carlos Hyde was the only other over age 25 — the 30-year-old Ingram is entering the second season of a three-year, $15.5 million contract and averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry for just the second time in his career. The 2019 Pro Bowl selection isn’t ready for a diminished role after eclipsing 200 carries for just the fourth time in his nine seasons, but that moderate workload is a likely reason why he’s still going strong at a position with a short shelf life.
“I’m with a great team that takes care of me, and I feel like I can play this game at a high level – at the highest level – for at least another four or five years,” Ingram said. “I feel like that. I honestly do. My body feels good. I’m moving good. I have nothing really lagging. If I do, I’ll be working on it, rehabbing it, strengthening it up so all my weaknesses are turning into my strengths.
“I just want to be the best, man. I want to be one of the best. When you talk about running backs who had long, prestigious careers, I want to be in that discussion.”
But that ambition after a strong first season in Baltimore comes as many suggest the organization shouldn’t maintain the status quo at the position, especially after a calf injury slowed the veteran in the shocking playoff loss to Tennessee. The Ravens rushed for an NFL-record 3,296 yards, averaged 0.5 yards per carry more than any other team, and had nearly 100 more carries than second-place San Francisco last year, but you still hear the various ideas.
More or fewer carries for Ingram, who finished just 20th in the NFL in rushing attempts.
More carries for Gus Edwards, who averaged 5.3 yards per rush last year.
More touches for Justice Hill, who flashed late in his rookie season.
Fewer rushes for Lamar Jackson despite him leading the league in yards per carry by an extraordinary margin last year and his generational athleticism being what truly makes this offense special.
Some have gone a step beyond those predictable talking points to even suggest that the Ravens take a running back like D’Andre Swift of Georgia late in the first round.
This is when we remind ourselves there’s only one football to go around, especially if you want to see the passing game continue to grow. That’s not to say the Ravens shouldn’t be open to adding young talent at a position so important to Greg Roman’s offense, but any thought of devoting an early pick to an already deep position falls into the category of trying to fix something that isn’t broken, especially with other needs on both sides of the ball.
Ingram says he wouldn’t be surprised to see general manager Eric DeCosta add a running back in next week’s draft. Perhaps even someone like Maryland’s Anthony McFarland on the final day would make sense.
“I don’t think I’ve been in the league a year where a running back hadn’t been drafted or acquired,” said Ingram, who saw New Orleans draft immediate Pro Bowl back Alvin Kamara in the third round of the 2017 draft. “Running back is always a position you try to have depth and quality. If that did happen, that’s just what it is. We’re going to welcome that young running back and try to make him better, try to make the team better. That’s just the gist of it.
“There’s always going to be somebody younger trying to come in. They’re always looking for new talent, new people at every position. Competition is a part of it. You can’t be scared of competition; it breeds excellence. Whatever we do, I’m sure it would be good.”
We know the Ravens offense is unique and conceivably values the running back position more than the more conventional team — though one could argue it’s really Jackson’s presence that makes any back that much better — but the debate centers around the importance of the position relative to the rest of the roster. Earlier this week, Carolina made 2019 Pro Bowl selection and former first-round pick Christian McCaffrey the highest-paid running back in league history after he eclipsed the 1,000-yard marks in both rush and receiving last year.
Showing support for the running back fraternity, Ingram offered his strong endorsement of the deal.
“Why should a running back be treated less than another position? All these other positions get high numbers,” Ingram said. “Why is it that the running back is subject to that? Why does the running back have to be the red-headed stepchild? I think [McCaffrey] deserves that number. His value on the team, his value across the league, his leadership, everything. I think he deserves that, and I think other running backs deserve bigger contracts as well.”
NFL hasn’t been kind to RBs signing multi-yr extensions that avg’d > $10M per yr, since 2012:
► 4 RBs
► All 4 cut/traded before end of deal
• Marshawn: traded after yr 1
• Peterson: cut after yr 2
• Johnson: traded after yr 2
• Gurley: cut after yr 2
Zeke, McCaffrey TBD
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) April 13, 2020
The overwhelming evidence in recent years suggests lucrative contracts for running backs are poor investments, but the Panthers — coming off a 5-11 season — are the latest team to insist their guy will be the exception. In Baltimore, we tend to forget three-time Pro Bowl selection Ray Rice was already in the midst of a sharp decline just two seasons into a five-year, $35 million contract signed in 2012 before the domestic violence incident that ended his NFL career.
Perhaps the best way to avoid the eventual big contract pitfall is having the discipline to avoid drafting a running back so early in the first place, another behavior analytics fail to support. It’s not that running backs don’t matter as much as understanding there will be more than enough value in less heralded options who can thrive in the right scheme and with a good offensive line, which are the biggest keys to the success of a ground attack.
When an undrafted back like Edwards has averaged 5.3 yards per carry over his two seasons in this offense, do you really expect to get the bang for your buck with a first-round running back?
To borrow a phrase from owner Steve Bisciotti, the Ravens should have bigger fish to fry than drafting a running back early next week. Some competition for Ingram and the other incumbents can come later in the weekend.