A year after setting the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season, the Baltimore Ravens appear to have their sights on a different distinction: the league's deepest backfield.
The Ravens drafted J.K. Dobbins in the second round, putting Ohio State's first 2,000-yard rusher in the same backfield as Mark Ingram II, a three-time Pro Bowl player; Gus Edwards, one of two backs in the NFL to gain over 700 yards and average more than five yards per carry in each of the past two seasons; and Justice Hill, a fourth-round pick from a year ago who was the fastest running back at the 2019 combine.
Won't this cause a problem of trying to keep four running backs happy?
“Is that really a problem to have four guys that are capable of breaking off big runs and making guys miss?” coach John Harbaugh asked. “I think that’s going to be a plus. There’s certainly going to be competition for carries and they are certainly going to have to prove themselves as blockers and pass-catchers and special-teams guys. There are roles there for those guys.”
The Ravens are touting the combination of Ingram, Dobbins, Edwards and Hill as a "four-headed monster." It's rare, although not unprecedented, to get quality production from four running backs in the same season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, just two teams in the past 10 years have had four running backs with at least 300 yards rushing in a season: the New Orleans Saints in 2011 (Chris Ivory, Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas and Ingram) and the New England Patriots in 2014 (Jonas Gray, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley). The Saints and Patriots both won 12 or more games and captured the division title in those seasons.
"I love good problems," Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "I’ve learned over the years, if you have good problems, bring them this way. And I say that unabashedly. And the fact that we have a lot of guys in our running back stable just makes me excited to no end. I don’t think you can have enough really good running backs, and we certainly have a plethora of them."
How the touches are spread around will be one of the top questions facing the Ravens (and fantasy football owners). Dobbins is expected to start the regular season as the primary backup to Ingram, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see him share the featured back role with Ingram by the end of it.
This is reminiscent of the Ravens' 2008 season, when they drafted Ray Rice after running backs Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain had produced Pro Bowl seasons. Rice was on pace for 200 touches and 900 total yards from scrimmage as a rookie before being injured for the final three games that season. Those numbers seem like a realistic projection for Dobbins, who was the No. 55 overall selection just like Rice.
"We’ll find ways to make it work, for sure," Roman said. "To have that kind of backfield is a blessing. We definitely want to get into training camp and work through it and kind of evolve as we go. As far as how we are actually going to deploy them, who we are going to emphasis [and] how, I think that’s going to happen on the fly every day in training camp, and [we’ll] get a better feel for that. But I love problems like that. I mean that sincerely.”
A crowded backfield now helps Baltimore immediately and in the future. General manager Eric DeCosta mentioned this offseason he doesn't remember a time over the past 15 years when the Ravens have had a starting running back stay healthy for a full season. The last Baltimore running back to start all 16 games was Rice in the 2012 Super Bowl season. So, the odds say the Ravens will need to rely on their depth at running back at some point this season.
Plus, Ingram turns 31 by the end of the season, and Edwards is a restricted free agent next season. If the Ravens decide to go with Dobbins and Hill as their running backs in 2021, Baltimore would save more than $7 million by cutting Ingram ($5 million) and not tendering Edwards (over $2 million).
For right now, the Ravens are focused on repeating the success of last season, when Baltimore broke the 1978 Patriots' NFL record by gaining 3,296 yards rushing.
"Coach Roman is just committed to it. It seems like coach Harbaugh is committed to it," Edwards said. "Everybody is just throwing around a ‘four-headed monster.’ I think everybody really wants to do it. That’s the first step and we’ll see where it goes. I’m excited, it’s a chance to make history."