The Ravens never figured out their backfield last season.
It’s a strange thing to say about a team that finished third in the league in rushing, but Greg Roman’s offense, with quarterback Lamar Jackson at its center, is designed to produce a crushing advantage on the ground. We saw this in 2019 and 2020, but not so much in 2021 after the team’s top two running backs, J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards, tore ACLs before the first snap of the regular season.
The names of those who filled in — Devonta Freeman, Latavius Murray and Le’Veon Bell — were familiar to NFL fans, but the players had faded from peak form. Gone were most of the explosive, double-digit gains that seemed routine with Dobbins and Edwards toting the ball.
The Ravens expected a return to form in 2022 with Dobbins and Edwards rehabilitating their knee injuries. They received a dose of good news Monday when Dobbins returned to practice for the first time in almost a year, but coaches do not know if the 2020 second-round draft pick will immediately resemble the back who averaged 6 yards per carry as a rookie. Edwards remains on the physically-unable-to-perform list.
That means the Ravens are again auditioning a pool of prospects and rebound candidates who might have to fill the breach behind Jackson in the early weeks of the season. These include Mike Davis, a part-time starter for the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons the past two seasons; Corey Clement, a former backup for the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys; Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick in 2019 who tore his Achilles last September; and rookie Tyler Badie, a sixth-round pick who impressed during offseason workouts.
It’s anyone’s guess which of these runners will be featured most come Week 1.
“It couldn’t be much more wide-open than the running back position right now,” coach John Harbaugh said.
That’s why no group will be more scrutinized when the Ravens line up against the Tennessee Titans on Thursday evening in their preseason opener. Most of the team’s stars, including Jackson, will not play, but Davis, Clement, Hill and Badie will have their chances to redraw the pecking order at a position vital to Roman’s attack.
“The big thing for us as coaches now is we’re seeing these guys, but we’re trying to push them all to the No. 1 spot — we’re trying to push them all there — and then see who grabs the brass ring and how it shakes out,” the Ravens offensive coordinator said. “But we want to make sure we’re prepared because any of these guys could play.”
Davis, 29, has run for more NFL yards (2,034) than Clement, Hill and Badie combined and entered camp as the safest bet to stand in for Dobbins or Edwards. But coaches have not treated him as a presumptive favorite for the role. He averaged a career-best 4.6 yards per carry for the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, then dropped to 3.8 yards per carry over his past two seasons with the Panthers and Falcons. He’s also a sure-handed receiver with 169 career catches, a trait Harbaugh pointed to when discussing Davis in June. The Falcons, Davis’ hometown team, signed him to a two-year deal before the 2021 season but released him in May.
“There was a lot of disappointment; I would say personally, I didn’t feel like I had my best year,” he said. “With that situation going on, I would say yeah, it fuels me.”
He said he’s not sure how the Ravens will use him, but “all I know is that whatever I’m here to do, I’ll be ready for it.”
“Mike is probably like the Swiss Army knife in the room,” Ravens running backs coach Craig Ver Steeg said, noting that Davis can thump through an inside gap on one play and look like a wide receiver the next.
The Ravens signed Clement, a 2017 undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin, the day before training camp started. The 27-year-old is a powerfully built runner who has demonstrated quickness between the tackles during his brief time with the Ravens, drawing praise from Roman. He posted career highs of 321 yards and 4.3 yards per carry in 2017, his rookie season with the Eagles.
“You could see it from Day 1 that he’s a pro’s pro,” Ver Steeg said. “He gets it and studies at night and knows how to adapt to an offense. You can see his power. You can see his quickness. He’s got really good pass [protection] ability. On top of that, he’s a really competent special teams guy in this league. So he brings a nice veteran element to the room.”
Hill, 24, is the most familiar face to Ravens fans. He turned heads with his sprinter’s speed during his rookie summer of 2019 but could not crack the lineup consistently in 2019 or 2020 and lost all of last season to a torn Achilles tendon. He’s facing a pivotal training camp, with the chance to earn significant playing time or fall out of the Ravens’ plans.
So far, Hill is trending in the right direction.
“There’s a guy, if you think back two years ago, he had a really defined role — perimeter, speed screens,” Ver Steeg said. “But he’s come back and shown parts of that [are] even better than before. So I’m excited for him. He’s a guy who can’t wait to get out and mix it up with another team.”
Hill said he used last year to “reflect and get better at things you need to work on.” He described himself as not just healthy but a more confident player.
The 5-foot-8, 197-pound Badie is the smallest of the candidates. He ran for 1,604 yards at Missouri last season, a total that led the Southeastern Conference, and has impressed Ravens coaches with his versatility. As a 2022 draft pick, he seems likely to make the team, but his potential role is up in the air.
There’s a lot of that going around in this most competitive of position groups.
“Our job is to get everybody exposed … to everything, and make sure everybody’s got all the bases and all the breadth of our offense covered,” Ver Steeg said. “We’re going to mix them all in and see. … I see No. 1 potential in every guy. My job is to make every guy push themselves to be a No. 1.”
Preseason, Week 1
Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
TV: Ch. 11
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM