New offensive coaches inherit interesting Ravens running back picture

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While the Lamar Jackson saga continues to dominate discussion, the Ravens do have other positions of interest this offseason.

The arrivals of offensive coordinator Todd Monken and position coach Willie Taggart prompt the question of what to expect from the running backs entering 2023. Quite the formidable duo when healthy, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards are both entering the final year of their respective deals, and no other Baltimore tailbacks are under contract for the upcoming season with Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill set to become unrestricted free agents next month.

There’s also the reality of moving forward without former offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whose ability to put together a dynamic ground attack was never in question despite the shortcomings of his passing game. Maintaining those principles and that same level of rushing success will be easier said than done, but the offense needs to evolve anyway, meaning the Ravens will take some rushing drop-off in the name of a more dynamic passing game.

While his return from tearing the ACL, LCL, meniscus, and hamstring in his left leg in the 2021 preseason finale was far from smooth and included a midseason cleanup procedure that sidelined him for six additional games, Dobbins, 24, played in nine contests including the playoffs and finished second in the NFL behind Chicago’s Khalil Herbert for the highest yards per carry average (5.65) among running backs with at least 90 rushing attempts. The 5-foot-10, 212-pound Dobbins was even better after returning from surgery in December, averaging just under 100 rushing yards per game and 6.96 yards per carry over his final four regular-season contests.

It’s hardly a secret that Dobbins wasn’t pleased with the manner in which the organization slow-played his return to the practice field over the summer and was even more frustrated with his usage in games, saying he “should be out there all the time” after the first-round playoff loss to Cincinnati in which he recorded 13 carries for 62 yards and registered a touchdown reception. It’s an understandable business position considering the 2020 second-round pick will be a free agent after 2023 and has averaged a robust 5.9 yards per carry, but his severe left knee injury cost him the entire 2021 campaign and roughly half of last season, leaving him at just 23 career regular-season games to showcase his talents.

Dobbins knows this will be a critical season to prove his long-term worth to the Ravens or another suitor. At the same time, Baltimore didn’t rush him back to the field too early or try to run him into the ground with too many touches, evidence that the organization was mindful of his long-term health.

Roman never shied away from his preference to use more of a timeshare with his running backs, but will that change under Monken? Though Zamir White received the lion’s share of the carries for the University of Georgia in a 2020 season impacted by the pandemic, Monken spread out the carries in each of the last two seasons with James Cook chipping away at White’s feature role in 2021 and top running backs Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards being nearly even in rushing attempts this past season. It’s also worth noting McIntosh’s involvement as a receiver with 43 catches last season, the kind of pass-catching involvement backs rarely had under Roman.

Dobbins’ overall workload could largely depend on the status of Edwards, who returned from his own ACL injury this past season and is scheduled to make $4.4 million in base salary and carry a $5.6 million salary cap number for 2023. Those numbers and the potential impact of Jackson’s status have led some to wonder if the 238-pound back could be a cap casualty, but Edwards has averaged at least 4.98 yards per carry in each of the four seasons in which he’s played and has been one of the NFL’s best short-yardage backs for several years. With the events of the 2021 season still fresh in their mind, the Ravens certainly don’t want to leave themselves too light at the position.

Regardless of what happens with their two incumbents, the Ravens will need to add at least one running back of consequence from a sheer numbers standpoint and for long-term planning purposes. That doesn’t mean general manager Eric DeCosta will covet Texas star Bijan Robinson in the first round, but Baltimore adding a running back early on the final day of the draft — McIntosh would be someone to watch for obvious reasons — seems like a good bet at the moment, especially if Drake and Hill sign elsewhere.

Though running back appears to be in good shape for 2023 on paper, that picture could still look different by the time the Ravens kick off in September.

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