Sophomore snub: Baltimore Ravens' J.K. Dobbins driven to show he belongs among best

J.K. Dobbins had a strong finish to his rookie season, but the Baltimore Ravens' running back is aiming to take things to another level in 2021. Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

OWINGS MILLS, Md. — After topping all running backs last season in yards per attempt, J.K. Dobbins has taken over the lead role for the NFL’s top rushing attack.

Any concerns about a sophomore slump? Not after this sophomore slight.

During the Baltimore Ravens’ recent minicamp, it took Dobbins until only the second question to bring up how Pro Football Focus ranked him 26th among all NFL running backs.

"You know that chip on my shoulder is pretty big,” Dobbins said. "Just a little fuel, like PFF ranking me 26th … I don’t think I’m 26th, but I love that. That gives me room to improve. I’ve got people to prove wrong.”

Getting snubbed is not something new for Dobbins. Considered by some experts as the No. 1 running back in the 2020 draft, Dobbins fell toward the bottom of the second round and watched four running backs get selected before him.

Motivated by the slide in the draft, Dobbins finished as the second-leading rookie rusher last season, gaining 805 yards and scoring nine touchdowns. He also averaged nearly six yards per carry, at least one yard more than Jonathan Taylor (5.0), D’Andre Swift (4.6), Clyde Edwards-Helaire (4.4) and Cam Akers (4.3) — all the backs drafted before Dobbins.

"He’s someone that we’re counting on highly,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "So, J.K. should take a big step this year in terms of every aspect of his game. So, I’m looking for him to be a difference-maker for us.”

Dobbins will share the workload with Gus Edwards, who signed a two-year extension with Baltimore this offseason. But Dobbins could produce more than 1,400 yards rushing in the new 17-game season, given how much the Ravens leaned on him down the stretch last season.

After only 16 carries in his first five games in 2020, Dobbins rushed for 425 yards and scored six touchdowns as Baltimore went into must-win mode for the final five regular-season games. The only running backs who recorded more rushing yards and touchdowns than Dobbins over that span were Taylor, Derrick Henry, David Montgomery and Nick Chubb.

Dobbins said his approach hasn’t changed entering this season as Baltimore’s top back.

"I’m going to come in and work hard, like I am working like I didn’t get drafted, like I’m not even on the team, like I am a guy off the streets, coming off the streets, working for a spot,” Dobbins said.

One area of his game that he’s working on is catching the ball. Last season, Dobbins had 18 receptions for 120 yards.

Ravens offensive coordinator Greg Roman recently mentioned how Dobbins’ skill set should make him “a viable weapon in the passing game.” A week later, Dobbins caught three touchdowns during one spring practice.

Dobbins’ best reception was leaping over inside linebacker Malik Harrison in the end zone, a picture of which drew 8,000 likes on Twitter.

“Shoot, it didn’t surprise me,” Dobbins said of the catch. "I’ve been doing that. I can catch the ball a little bit. I know I had a few mistakes last year, but this year, I’ve been working on eliminating those mistakes, even the little mistakes. I’m perfecting my craft and making sure I’m ready at all times to catch the ball, do all that stuff. So, it’ll be great this year.”

The Ravens haven’t had a young, all-around running back since Ray Rice seven years ago. Since that time, Baltimore has relied on stop-gap backs like Justin Forsett, Terrance West, Alex Collins and Mark Ingram II.

In order to have long-term success and prove the critics wrong, Dobbins said he understands it takes more than maintaining physical strength.

“I think a lot of people overlook mental strength,” Dobbins said. "The NFL season is a long season, especially for a rookie. It’s different than college; you play a lot of games. And mentally, you have to be ready. You have to be on point with your mental, because if you’re not, then your body, none of that’s going to work. I feel like I’ve been learning this offseason to have my mental ready, body ready, all of that. I feel like I’m locked and loaded."