Baltimore Ravens Roster Preview: Running Backs

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running back Alex Collins #34 of the Baltimore Ravens dives for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 31: Running back Alex Collins #34 of the Baltimore Ravens dives for a touchdown in the third quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) /

My roster preview series continues on the offensive side of the ball with the running backs. How will the position fare for the Baltimore Ravens?

The Baltimore Ravens have been a franchise defined by the ground game. After steering away from that part of the offense in 2016, it was a major improvement last season. The Ravens averaged 116 rushing yards per game, 11th best in the NFL and they’ll look to improve that number even further with emerging talent in the backfield.

Ozzie Newsome did not draft a running back nor has he targeted a free agent, leaving the backfield relatively untouched aside from Danny Woodhead and Terrance West’s departures. But the return of a familiar face and a few undrafted free agent rookies will be something to watch as the offseason progresses.

A balanced attack will be a priority for the offense as Greg Roman’s run-heavy influence continues. Smashmouth football in the AFC North relies on the ground game and here’s a look at what the Ravens are working with.

Alex Collins

No one expected Alex Collins to make the impact he did. Signed off waivers from the Seattle Seahawks, Collins appeared in 15 games and finished with 973 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Early ball security problems raised questions about Collins’ running ability but he quickly silenced critics with a fantastic stretch of play.

Collins’ physicality, speed, and vicious run style gave the Ravens an immediate impact in the backfield. He only improved as the season progressed, totaling all six of his touchdowns in the final seven weeks of the season. Terrance West seemingly became expendable and Collins quietly performed as one of the top running backs in the NFL last season.

John Harbaugh, the coaching staff, and front office seem to be content with Collins. Releasing Danny Woodhead and parting ways with Terrance West only furthers the opportunity for Collins to be the feature back in Baltimore. Some may be concerned with a small sample size but the Ravens have him under team control for the next two seasons. This year as an exclusive-rights free agent and in 2019 as a restricted free agent.

Collins possesses the tools to be a 1,000-yard rusher this season and isn’t a feel-good story anymore. He’s beginning to show flashes as a top running back.

Buck Allen

Not all was lost for the Ravens during an injury-plagued season in 2015. Rookie running back Buck Allen burst on to the scene, totaling 867 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns. The former fourth-round pick looked to be a major addition to the backfield but his role became obsolete in 2016.

Seen as a roster bubble player last season, Allen returned to his rookie form and was an integral part of the Ravens’ backfield. Danny Woodhead and Kenneth Dixon‘s IR stints increased Allen’s role and he took complete advantage of the opportunity. He served as the all-purpose back, showing off the ability on the ground and in the passing game.

Allen now enters the final year of his rookie contract and will be counted on in a similar role. It will be interesting to see how increased playing time for Collins and the return of Kenneth Dixon affects Allen’s snap count. He’s got the upper-hand as the pass-catching back and will look to prove that heading into the season. Joe Flacco needs a running back he can trust through the air and right now, Allen is that guy.

Kenneth Dixon

The curious case of Kenneth Dixon is one I am intrigued to watch. His emergence as a rookie in 2016 replaced the role of Buck Allen. Dixon was a workhorse back and impressed with his motor and lateral agility. He worked as a one-two punch with Terrance West and was expected to compete for the No. 1 running back job last season. That was before a four-game PED suspension and MCL injury that ended his sophomore stint before it even started.

Dixon certainly is an X-factor for the Ravens. Much like Collins, we’ve only seen a small sample size of production and durability issues are a concern. Dixon must prove he can stay on the field and out of trouble. Another suspension would knock him out 10-games and John Harbaugh’s doghouse has been a hard one to get out of.

The potential is there but so are the question marks. It’s a proving year for Dixon and if all goes well, he’s expected to be the team’s No. 3 back.

UDFA’s: Gus Edwards, Mark Thompson, and De’Lance Turner

The Ravens didn’t draft a running back but they signed three talented undrafted rookies. Gus Edwards (Rutgers), Mark Thompson (Miami) and De’Lance Turner (Alcorn State) face an uphill battle to make the 53-man roster but it helps with limited competition from the proven players.

One undrafted rookie has made the roster for 14 straight years and if that streak continues, it could very well be from this group. Buck Allen enters the final year of his rookie contract and Kenneth Dixon still is a major question mark. Taking four running backs along with a fullback isn’t out of the question and that fate will be decided in training camp and most importantly the preseason. Running backs can only prove so much without the pads on.

Next: Fantasy Football: Top 5 Baltimore Ravens to get on your team

We’ll get a better idea of the outlook of these three backs but much like the wide receiver position last year, the lack of attention in the draft bodes well for the undrafted rookies looking to make the roster in any capacity possible.