Ravens hurrying to evaluate new running back inventory ahead of Monday’s opener

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens lost a whopping 80 percent of their tailback room over the last two weeks, but general manager Eric DeCosta has responded by adding three former 1,000-yard rushers to the mix.

The question is how much Latavius Murray, Le’Veon Bell, and Devonta Freeman can contribute — both immediately and over the course of the season — with the 2021 opener just a few days away. On Friday, head coach John Harbaugh declared all three to be in good physical shape while noting both Murray and Freeman spent the preseason with New Orleans and acknowledging Bell’s need “to get his sea legs a little bit football-wise” after the three-time Pro Bowl selection hadn’t been with a team all summer. Murray was signed to the 53-man roster on a one-year deal reportedly worth up to $2 million while Freeman joined Bell on the practice squad, but the learning curve is steep for all three — as well as newcomer Trenton Cannon — with the Ravens traveling to Las Vegas Saturday ahead of their clash with the Raiders on Monday Night Football.

The only safe Week 1 bet at the position is 2020 practice-squad member Ty’Son Williams — now the longest-tenured member of the active running back room — receiving a substantial workload in what will be his NFL debut.

“Football shape does mean something. Now, we have to get them up to speed with the playbook,” said Harbaugh about the new running backs. “So, what can they take into the game Monday night? That’s what we have to figure out in the next two practices over the next couple of days, is what different guys can handle in the game and just make a specific playbook for what they’re ready for and merge it into our plan for the game and playing the game.”

Murray, 31, would figure to be active with Williams and Cannon being the only other tailbacks on the 53-man roster, but he may also be the best scheme fit among the newcomers despite being two years older than both Bell and Freeman. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, Murray is coming off the strongest season of the three after rushing for 656 yards and four touchdowns and averaging 4.5 yards per carry serving as Saints superstar Alvin Kamara’s understudy. Meanwhile, Bell and Freeman both battled injuries and are coming off arguably the worst season of their respective careers.

Given the success Gus Edwards found in a Lamar Jackson-led rushing attack over the last few years, Murray’s physicality should mesh well once he’s up to speed with Greg Roman’s system. After a promising summer, Williams will get the first crack at the lead back role by default, but Murray could push for that responsibility sooner than later, which likely explains why he received a 53-man roster spot ahead of Bell and Freeman. Despite Murray being in a No. 2 role last season, Pro Football Focus graded him eighth overall and fourth in receiving among qualified running backs.

He was released by the Saints earlier this week after declining to take a cut in pay.

“I think his style is a great fit,” Harbaugh said. “You guys have all watched him play. You’re football fans, and you cover the game. His style fits what we do. You’ve seen our offense; I think you can picture him pretty easily in that offense.”

In addition to officially placing Edwards (knee) and cornerback Marcus Peters (knee) on injured reserve, the Ravens sent Nick Boyle to IR after the veteran tight end had been absent from practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Returning from a serious knee injury suffered last November, Boyle was activated from the physically unable to perform list at the end of the preseason and had only begun practicing on Sept. 1.

Harbaugh had previously stated Boyle wouldn’t be ready for the season opener, but he declined to say whether his top blocking tight end had suffered some sort of setback since returning to the practice field. Unlike Edwards and Peters, the 28-year-old Boyle is aiming to return in October.

“Just to get his knee right and get his body right,” Harbaugh said. “We expect him to be back Week 4 or Week 5. Somewhere in there whenever he gets back.”

In other injury news, defensive end Derek Wolfe remained absent with a back and hip injury and isn’t expected to play against the Raiders. Cornerback Jimmy Smith was a limited participant and only returned to practice Wednesday after missing more than a month with a right ankle injury, leaving his Week 1 availability in doubt.

Needing a spot on the practice squad for Freeman, the Ravens released offensive tackle Andre Smith on Friday. Baltimore still had two open spots to fill on the 53-man roster as of Friday evening.

Below is Friday’s official injury report:

BALTIMORE
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: DT Brandon Williams (non-injury), DE Derek Wolfe (back/hip)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: OLB Daelin Hayes (knee), CB Jimmy Smith (ankle)

LAS VEGAS
DID NOT PARTICIPATE: G Richie Incognito (calf), S Roderic Teamer (shoulder/ankle)
LIMITED PARTICIPATION: RB Josh Jacobs (toe)
FULL PARTICIPATION: DE Clelin Ferrell (back), OT Alex Leatherwood (shin), DE Carl Nassib (pectoral)