(Skip the next two paragraphs if you just want on-the-field football analysis.)
For the record, my stance on the Rice situation is that a two game suspension is too lenient and it sends a horrible message about the NFL’s view on domestic violence. Two games for domestic abuse? Four games for a positive drug or PED test? One game for an illegal high hit? Something doesn’t compute here. Rice’s actions deserved a minimum of a four game suspension, if not a six to eight game ban. The NFL desperately needs a specific and transparent review board that addresses misconduct among the players. The punishments, or presumed deterrents, of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell are too inconsistent.
That being said, Rice’s case was complicated in the sense that how he was perceived before the incident—a stalwart in the community—and how he has tried to change his life since the altercation may have played a part in the light suspension. Rice’s abhorrent actions deserved a much harsher consequence than two games. Rice, the man in his entirety, may be the reason for the head scratching two-game suspension. For what it is worth, I have been taught (and experienced myself) to hate the sin but love the sinner—that helps provide hope for redemption.
Back to talk of football that takes place on the field. In today’s NFL, a team needs diversity in their running back corps. Very few teams use a one back system, as most utilize a multi-back system. Teams need their running backs to get the tough yards between the tackles, hit the edge with speed on power runs, be elusive in open space, catch balls out of the backfield, break tackles, and pass block when called upon. Not many backs can perform all of these tasks with proficiency, so coaches like to plug different players into their offensive systems and schemes. This allows coaches to create mismatches for the opposing team’s defense.
Just where do the stable of Ravens’ running backs stack against the rest of the AFC north? Here are my team rankings of the division’s projected running back corps for the 2014 season.
1) Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount, Dri Archer (R)
This group of running backs is the most impressive in the division. There is speed, power, youth, experience, elusiveness, and bull rushing. Bell, a second year player from Michigan State, is a budding star with speed and power. And, he is versatile because he is a threat in the passing game as well. The Ravens were reportedly interested in Blount during the offseason, but backed off and he then signed with Pittsburgh. He is a tough inside the tackle runner and according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Blount was a top seven back in yards after contact per attempt. The dude breaks tackles. Archer adds another element to the Steelers’ corps of running backs. More to the point, both Bell and Blount shredded the Ravens last year. In two games, Bell amassed 163 rushing yards on 35 carries (4.7 yards per carry), 63 receiving yards, and one rushing touchdown. Blount rushed for 76 yards and two touchdowns. What the rookie Archer lacks in size and power, he more than makes up for in speed, acceleration, and explosiveness. He has been compared to a lighter version of Jamaal Charles. This group of running backs has it all—speed, power, elusiveness, and explosive potential—and will create mismatches against most defenses.
2) Cincinnati Bengals: Giovani Bernard, Jeremy Hill (R), BenJarvus Green-Ellis/Cedric Peerman
If Pittsburgh has the best, most versatile group of backs in the AFC North, then Cincinnati comes in at a close second within the division. Like Bell, Bernard is another player on the rise. By week eight of the 2013 season, Bernard claimed the majority of the snaps from the Bengals’ 2013 free agent acquisition Green-Ellis. The second year player from North Carolina was often compared to in-his-prime Ray Rice during the draft process. Though not a major breakaway threat, Bernard is elusive and he is dangerous in space. This plays well with his excellent receiving skills. In addition, he did well when gaining yards after contact as he averaged 2.26 yards per attempt. Hill, a rookie second-round draft pick from LSU, is pushing Green-Ellis further down the depth chart. In fact, what lands the Bengals after the Steelers on this list is the uncertainty at the third running back position. There are reports surfacing that Green-Ellis may struggle to make the team. But Hill is the real deal. He is another player that was connected to the Ravens, as he was supposedly a prospect that the Ravens were interested in during the draft. He went a little higher than some expected, but he is big back that will pick up yards after contact. He also has some passing catching ability and pass blocking skills, so he may develop into the Bengals’ third down back. The Bengals have two impressive, young backs that will be a thorn in the Ravens’ side for years to come.
3) Cleveland Browns: Ben Tate, Terrance West, Edwin Baker/Isaiah Crowell/Dion Lewis
Though he struggled last year for the Houston Texans as he became more of a full-time starter after Arian Foster’s injury, Ben Tate was a nice free agent pick-up for the Browns. According to PFF, he had a high elusive rating (a metric used to determine a runner’s effectiveness independent of the blocking in front of him) and he averaged 2.38 yards after contact. He may be a nice fit in Cleveland. West, the rookie third-round pick and local product from Towson University, is pushing Tate for the starting position. West is big, has good vision, and finishes plays. He isn’t a speedster by any means, but he will be that tough inside-the-tackle runner. (Now, if Tate and West could just get along…) Crowell, the undrafted free agent rookie, is the wildcard. Had he not had off-field issues, he would have been drafted. He is strong, has good vision, and can get to the outside if needed. He doesn’t have much speed, but that is true for all of the Browns’ projected running backs unless Lewis makes the squad. Lewis, the Philadelphia Eagles’ fifth-round pick in 2011 that was acquired by the Browns via trade this offseason, is lauded for his quickness, elusiveness, and his ability to make defenders miss in the open field. He played sparingly last year for the Eagles, but he may provide something different than Tate, West, and Crowell. Because of the issues pertaining to speed, the Browns’ running backs rank third on my AFC North list.
4) Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice, Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro (R), Justin Forsett
The Ravens rushing woes in 2013 are well documented. The blocking from the offensive line was atrocious, but even when the Ravens had good blocking Rice and Pierce struggled mightily. Rice had a PFF elusive rating of 7.2—57 points lower than the league leader (Adrian Peterson), and 8 points lower than the next rated running back (Chris Johnson) with at least 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. In addition, Rice only averaged 1.52 yards after contact, the league low for backs with at least 50 percent of the team’s offensive snaps. To be fair, Rice hasn’t really excelled in either of these categories since 2009. But there was a sharp decline from his average numbers in these categories from 2010 through 2012 to 2013. There may be something to notion that Rice has little left in the tank. Pierce, who battled a barrage of injuries, wasn’t much better—a 23.4 elusive rating and he only averaged 1.75 yards after contact. Last year’s third running back, Bernard Scott, barely saw the field and he was released. The Ravens did surprisingly little to upgrade the position for the 2014 season. Taliaferro has a nice blend of size (height and weight), vision, downhill power, and pass blocking skills. But coming from a small school like Coastal Carolina, he was a bit of a reach in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Forsett has the benefit of knowing offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s running scheme from their time together in Houston, but he would have been a roster bubble player if not for the Rice suspension. Does anyone feel really secure with this year’s crop of backs? Rice is coming off his worst year, Pierce has durability issues, Taliaferro is an unheralded rookie, and Forsett is little more than a journeyman. Maybe a motivated Rice has a bounce-back year. Maybe Pierce stays healthy. Maybe Taliaferro and Forsett provide a spark. However, that’s too many maybes for my liking.
While the other teams in the AFC North used free agency and/or the draft to upgrade and diversify their offensive backfield, the Ravens chose to mostly stand pat and hope that a rookie and a journeyman take advantage of early-season opportunities.