How Alex Collins came up biggest winner in Ravens' draft

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Baltimore Ravens running back Alex Collins was given a vote of confidence by coach John Harbaugh at the NFL owners meetings two months ago.

But the biggest sign of the Ravens' commitment to Collins came in the NFL draft, when Baltimore didn't use one of its 12 draft picks on a running back.

Collins became the biggest offseason winner, entering spring workouts as Baltimore's unquestioned lead runner. Given the chance, the NFL's most popular Irish dancer is bent on being known as something else -- an established franchise running back.

"It's more so just me trying to show everyone else that capability as well," Collins said at the start of the team's offseason conditioning program. "I know I'm durable. I can handle the load, and I can do whatever it takes."

Can Collins become a long-term centerpiece to the offense like Ray Rice? Or will he become a one-year wonder like Justin Forsett and Terrance West?

No Baltimore running back has gained over 900 yards rushing in consecutive years since Rice in 2011-12. The Ravens have had four different leading rushers in the past five seasons. Only the Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans have had more over that span, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"Throw me out into the fire and I’ll show you guys my capabilities," Collins said. "That’s my main focus when I’m out there. Let them know in here now that I can do it, I want to do it, and I can take the load. It’s just as far as if they’re ready for me to do that or not."

Collins ranked 11th in the leage last year with 973 rushing yards, despite beginning the season on the practice squad and not starting until Week 4.

Still, immediately after the season, Harbaugh was reluctant to name Collins as the starter. Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta later indicated the team would draft a running back if he was "special" and could "take a game over with his unique skill set."

The Ravens didn't select a running back with any of their dozen picks, but there was an instance where they thought they were going to do so. Baltimore was eyeing Miami's Mark Walton in the fourth round before the Cincinnati Bengals selected him six spots ahead of the Ravens, according to The Baltimore Sun.

"We had some guys that we liked at probably two different opportunities where players got picked right in front of us," DeCosta said. "That happens every year. I think I had less patience for it this year for some reason; I got kind of angry. But it did happen a few times, and one specifically was a running back. We tried. We had a couple other guys that we liked that we didn’t take for various reasons. We like our running backs."

Collins was one of the biggest keys to the Ravens turning around their running attack. Baltimore went from No. 28 in the NFL in rushing in 2016 (91.4 yards per game) to No. 11 last season (116 per game).

A physical yet elusive runner, Collins averaged 4.59 yards per carry. Of the backs with more than 200 carries, the only one who averaged more per attempt were Mark Ingram, Kareem Hunt and Todd Gurley.

At the end of March, Harbaugh publicly put his support behind Collins.

"Obviously, we have a starter and Alex has proven that," Harbaugh said. "He had a great year last year. He makes people miss. He breaks tackles, gets yards after contact. This is a player that makes stuff happen."

As the Ravens' starter, Collins is expected to get a bulk of the touches. But Collins' workload is different from some of the other NFL feature backs.

Hunt, for example, recorded over 20 touches in nine games as a rookie. Collins exceeded 20 touches in three games.

There have been some questions about Collins' durability. Even though he didn't miss a game last season, he dealt with a migraine as well as injuries to his calf and shoulder.

The Ravens have depth at the running back position. Buck Allen was the most improved player on offense last season, and Kenneth Dixon returns after missing all of last season with a knee injury (which also included two suspensions).

Collins made it clear that he is willing to stay on the field as much as possible.

"That’s just my main focus: showing them that I’m conditioned, I can do it, I know the plays," Collins said. "That’s my main thing. That’s something I want to do -- it’s a goal. I always set that goal -- ever since high school. I’ve been able to accomplish it all over my career. Being able to get that at this level is something that I’m working hard for."