BALTIMORE -- Shortly after becoming the Baltimore Ravens' offensive coordinator, Gary Kubiak made this pronouncement: "As Ray Rice goes, we’ll go." Two months later, Kubiak obviously has to make his first audible.
The Ravens need to take a running back in this year's draft, because they need insurance not only for this season but for the future. The best investment the Ravens could make in the middle rounds is to select a running back such as Towson's Terrance West, Washington's Bishop Sankey, Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Boston College's Andre Williams or West Virginia's Charles Sims.
Much of the talk at running back has centered on how much time Rice will miss in 2014, and it's a legitimate concern after he was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after allegedly striking his now-wife unconscious. Rice was arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence Feb. 15 after a physical altercation with Janay Palmer at the Revel Casino and Hotel in Atlantic City, N.J. Even if Rice is found not guilty or avoids jail time, he is expected to face punishment from the NFL under the league's personal conduct policy.
The Ravens have repeatedly voiced their support for Rice, and owner Steve Bisciotti said he believes Rice has a future with the team. But the Ravens' front office is too shrewd to rest all of its hopes on Rice. No one knows what to expect out of Rice when he does line up in the Ravens' backfield. He is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-worst 3.1 yards per carry and produced more fumbles (two) than 20-yard runs (one).
The Ravens have done their part to help this offseason by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and trading for center Jeremy Zuttah. Rice is working hard to rebound and has reportedly lost 15 pounds. What if this isn't enough? Bisciotti acknowledged at the end of the season that the team did bring up the question of whether Rice is done.
Numbers suggest Rice's days as a premier playmaker in the league are over. The wear and tear of the position has caught up to most of the running backs in the 2008 draft class. Of the top 10 backs taken that year, six averaged less than 4 yards per carry last season, and two are out of the league.
Those who defend Rice will say he lacked explosion after injuring his hip in Week 2 and he didn't have any running room because of the Ravens' dreadful offensive line. There is just no reasoning behind why Rice failed to make plays when catching the ball in space. He averaged 5.5 yards per reception, which was the worst of his career by an average of two yards. Since that memorable "Hey Diddle Diddle Ray Rice Up The Middle" moment in November 2012 -- when Rice converted a fourth-and-29 in San Diego with a 29-yard catch and run -- he has had three catches over 20 yards. That is over a span of 24 games, and only 13 of those came after Rice's injury.
Rice turned 27 this year, which is a telling age for NFL running backs. As ESPN's Kevin Seifert pointed out, running backs are peaking at 27 before suffering significant drop-offs. This is why 72 percent of running backs currently under contract are 26 or younger.
If Rice misses games or struggles again, the Ravens don't have much of a safety net. Backup running back Bernard Pierce's stock dropped last season. Pierce averaged 2.9 yards per carry, which was second-worst among qualified running backs, and couldn't stay healthy for a second straight year. He won't practice until the start of training camp after offseason shoulder surgery. There is no guarantee that he'll be at full strength when the season begins or whether he has the durability to handle the starting job for an extended period.
The need to draft a running back increased this offseason when the Ravens signed Justin Forsett in free agency instead of LeGarrette Blount as their third running back. Forsett has experience in Kubiak's system, but it's never a good sign to have "cut by the Jaguars" on your résumé.
It's no longer a question of if the Ravens should draft a running back. It's a matter of when. Most draft analysts have the Ravens selecting an offensive lineman and a safety in the first two rounds. The Ravens might consider using a pick on a running back in the third round, where they have two picks (79th and 99th overall), or fourth round (138th overall).
ESPN draft analyst Steve Muench's top picks in the middle rounds are:
West Virginia's Sims: "Doesn't have great power but sudden with quick feet and outstanding in the passing game."
Boston College's Williams: "Minimal production in passing game, and to a lesser degree, injury history, are concerns. As a runner he's a battering ram, and he shows deceptive speed when he gets a seam."
Towson's West: "He's a tough, hard-nosed runner who has flown under radar at Towson, and it would be a great story if he ended up staying in Maryland. If they can get him late fourth he could prove to be a steal."
Running the ball has long been a foundation of the Ravens' offense, and it will be a big part of Kubiak's play calling. Over the past five seasons, only five other teams ran the ball more than Kubiak's Texans. Establishing a strong running game is his blueprint to set up the play-action pass.
The importance of a running back in Kubiak's offense can't be overstated. That is why the Ravens have to make it a priority to draft a running back this year, whether it's for a contingency plan in 2014 or an investment for the future.
No one expected the Ravens to take a running back in 2008, when they drafted Rice in the second round. Six years later, it would be a surprise if the Ravens didn't draft his potential successor.