Journeyman Running Back Justin Forsett had a career year in 2014. The 5’8”, 197 lbs Forsett ran for 1,266 yards (fifth in the NFL) on 235 carries for an average of 5.4 yards per carry (first in the NFL of those with 100 or more attempts). Most of Forsett’s 2014 stats were career highs.
Conversely, projected starter, Bernard Pierce, fell flat on his face for the second consecutive year. Pierce lost his starting job to Forsett after two weeks because he failed to perform and failed to stay healthy, again.
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Rookie Running Back, Lorenzo Taliaferro, who like Pierce was injured and only appeared in 13 games, had 25 fewer attempts than Pierce but nearly as many yards (292 to Pierce’s 366). Taliaferro also had a better yards per carry average (4.3 to 3.9 for Pierce), four times as many pass receptions (8 versus Pierce’s 2) and twice as many touchdowns (4 to 2).
The 6”0”, 226 lbs Taliaferro showed promise last season, both as a runner and receiver; but because of the time loss to injury, the Ravens have not seen enough yet to give him the “keys to the kingdom.” A strong performance this year in OTAs and Training Camp and during the pre-season might solidify him as a contender for starting.
“Forsett, who just turned 29 in October, is an Unrestricted Free Agent with the first opportunity in his career for a substantial pay day.”
Forsett, who just turned 29 in October, is an Unrestricted Free Agent with the first opportunity in his career for a substantial pay day. It is strongly rumored that the Atlanta Falcons have a considerable interest in Forsett, which might make him too expensive for the Ravens to keep.
In the three years that Pierce has been with the Ravens, he has established a disturbing pattern of underachievement and fragility. At this point, Pierce can only be expected to fill a limited, back-up role and, frankly, the team appears to have as good or better options on their current roster, in free agency and in the NFL Draft.
Exclusive Rights Free Agent Fitzgerald Toussaint and Touren Poole (a practice squad player who had spent time with the Carolina Panthers– several times, the Colts, Steelers and Saints before being signed by Baltimore) are the only other Running Backs on the Roster. Although Toussaint is still a project, it appears he might be a real contender this year to supplant Pierce on the Ravens’ 53 man roster.
With Forsett likely leaving through free agency and Pierce even more likely to hit the waiver wire if his production doesn’t improve, the Ravens’ are finding themselves in worse shape than in 2013. Although it has not received as much attention as acquiring defensive backs and wide receivers, finding a Running Back has become a critical need.
To address this important issue, the Ravens could look to free agency. However, many of the top unrestricted free agents are either in serious negotiations with their current teams for new contracts or they have a long history of missing games due to injury. If the Ravens go the free agent route, they might be forced to compromise on price, personality or availability.
Given the Ravens’ commitment to the West Coast style of offense, they might make a play for Shane Vereen (UFA of the Patriots) but Vereen’s price might have gone up because of his performance in this year’s Super Bowl. In spite of his stellar production as a pass receiver, Vereen is unlikely to be re-signed by the Patriots because of his paltry production running the ball and their re-signing of Brandon Bolden. In teaming him with Taliaferro, Vereen could become a very effective third down and “red zone” alternative.
Another free agent possibility is Ryan Mathews of the Chargers but that would take a tremendous “leap of faith” that Mathews could stay healthy (he lost 10 games last year to injury) and could improve on his 4.1 yards per carry career average.
Of course, there is the much rumored possibility of signing free agent Chris Johnson (most recently of the New York Jets) to replace Forsett. Johnson is a proven commodity with a career average of 4.5 yards per carry and he is durable; but his true value is in his ability to make plays. Johnson can routinely turn a 3 yards dive play into a game breaking 50 yards touchdown run.
Da Windy City
Chris Johnson would appear to be a great acquisition but there are some concerns that Johnson’s price might be too high for the Ravens and that he might want a longer commitment than the Ravens are willing to offer. Another concern is reconciling Johnson’s concept of his role in the Offense versus the way John Harbaugh would use him. Johnson has been very critical of Rex Ryan and the Jets for “not using him in the way they promised.”
There are several other free agent possibilities such as C.J. Spiller (Buffalo Bills), Mark Ingram (New Orleans Saints) and Roy Helu (Washington Redskins) and none of these UFAs are over the age of 29, but Spiller and Ingram have underachieved and Helu is clearly a back-up.
“The new schedule will present greater challenges and greater opportunities for the Ravens to regress. “
In addition to the available free agents, there are several good Running Backs in the 2015 NFL Draft Class. It is unlikely that the Ravens will take a Running Back in the first three rounds, so Melvin Gordon (Wisconsin), Todd Gurley (Georgia), Jay Ajayi (Boise State), Duke Johnson (Miami – FL), Telvin Coleman (Indiana) and T. J. Yeldon will probably be off of the board before they are ready to draft a Running Back.
The Ravens might have a shot, in the middle rounds, to draft a prospect like Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), a Justin Forsett clone who ran for 100+ yards in 11 of his 13 games in 2013 and followed that with 1,611 yards (6.1 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns in 2014.
NFL Spin Zone
The Ravens finished the 2014 season with a 10-6 record against one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, primarily comprised of NFC South and AFC South opponents. The schedule for 2015 will be more robust, pitting the Ravens against the NFC West, the AFC West, their usual Division foes and two improving teams (Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars). The new schedule will present greater challenges and greater opportunities for the Ravens to regress. Without an adequate running game, we could see a return to 2013 like production; so, resolving the Running Back issue is paramount.
Over the next three months, as the “tag” period, free agency and the Draft unfold, Ravens Nation will be watching to see what the team does to retain Justin Forsett or acquire an adequate replacement. All eyes will be on General Manager Ozzie Newsome to see how he resolves this issue. Until Forsett is re-signed or a quality alternative is in place, the Ravens’ Offense will clearly be “running on empty.”