What To Make of Ravens’ Backfield Following Gus Edwards’ Injury

Justin Dunbar takes a look at the new Ravens' backfield with Gus Edwards out for the year with a torn ACL.

When you’ve led the league in rushing yards/game in each of the past two seasons, fantasy football managers are going to want to have shares of that rushing attack. Now, quarterback Lamar Jackson contributes greatly to Baltimore’s rushing prowess, yet their running backs have also been very productive fantasy assets.

Initially, JK Dobbins was the running back that received the majority of the hype, ranking 15th in running back average draft position in NFC drafts. However, in an extremely unfortunate fashion, the 22-year-old suffered a torn ACL in the team’s final preseason game. Thus, the hype of the Gus Bus was underway. Over the past seven days, Gus Edwards’ NFC draft position went up to 22nd among running backs, and with a favorable matchup against the Raiders, he was seen as a clear top-20 player for this week.

Alas, we can’t have nice things. Edwards, in addition to cornerback Marcus Peters, suffered a torn ACL. No, I don’t know what’s in the water in Baltimore! What we can figure out, though, is what to make of the Ravens’ backfield moving forward. If this is such a friendly offense for rushing efficiency, someone has to take advantage, right? That’s the puzzle we’ll be trying to solve here!

 

A Deep Dive Into The Ravens Offense

 

The Ravens have completely outpaced the rest of the NFL in terms of rushing efficiency. The gap between them (5.6) and second place (5) in rushing yards/play is the gap between second place and 19th. That’s simply absurd.

That number is definitely skewed by Lamar Jackson, who has averaged 6.6 yards/rush attempt over the past two seasons. His 12.9 carries per game are a major part of the team’s rushing offense, and slightly limit the opportunities the running backs have. Dobbins averaged 12.8 points per game from Week 11 on, but that also came with just 9.3 expected points, while Edwards averaged just 7.8 points per game and 6.8 expected points for the season. If this is a committee, I wouldn’t anticipate tremendous fantasy production.

Part of this is due to the team’s passing offense, which doesn’t feature the running backs. All of them combined just a 12.4% target share, and you consider that needs to be split between multiple players, that’s an issue. The leader on the team in targets was Dobbins with 23, but a running back hasn’t ranked in the top-five on the team in targets in each of the past two seasons.

Plus, the touchdown opportunities aren’t as glorious as it’s made out to be. Jackson led the team with 30 red-zone carries, meaning that the running backs have to be very efficient with the red-zone opportunities they get. Rushing quarterbacks may improve the running back’s efficiency, but they also take away from their overall volume. Keep that in mind as we assess this backfield.

One final note: the Ravens have run a gap-running scheme, meaning that the best running backs for them are power runners who can create yardage after contact. Dobbins and Edwards each specialized in this area, which is likely why the team invested in both of them. Furthermore, with the threat of Jackson, chances for breakaway runs are likely to come by. This is something that Dobbins (43.2% breakaway) did especially well, and allowed him to overachieve his expected numbers. Mainly, power runners fit here, yet those who can mix in the ability to take advantage of breakaway chances adds another layer to their rushing attack.

Now, let’s meet the team’s running backs.

 

The Last Back Remaining: Ty’Son Williams

 

Initially, Ty’Son Williams was fighting with Justice Hill for the third running back spot. With Hill going down with an achilles injury (because of course) and then Dobbins tearing his ACL, he suddenly became an intriguing late-round pick if he received more of a workload with Edwards than anticipated.

Now, Williams might be thrust into the spotlight in Week 1. As a former undrafted free agent, we don’t have many data points on him, and the ones we have been mixed.

The good news? Williams performed well in the preseason, earning an 84.6 PFF rushing grade and averaging 3.42 yards after contact/attempt. Heck, he was even utilized as a receiver with 43 routes run and eight receptions on eight targets, which should increase our optimism. With a 78th percentile speed score and 6’0″, 220 pound frame, he actually profiles athletically to Damien Harris, per Player Profiler, who thrived in a similar style of offense in New England last year.

Case settled, right? Sadly, there’s the bad news. As you’d expect from an undrafted, Williams’ college numbers weren’t exactly elite. He played at three different colleges (North Carolina, South Carolina, BYU), never had 100 carries in a season, and averaged just 2.86 yards after contact per carry for his career. Add in that he was essentially a non-factor in the receiving game, and it’s clear that Baltimore’s faith in him is more based on his athleticism than anything else.

Now, I will mention that running back success is subject to a lot of different factors, such as offensive line, rushing scheme, and opposing box counts. In such a favorable rushing scheme, him being a solid athlete may be all we need to know to project him for some rushing success. He did deal with injuries in college, and the fact he was likely to beat out Hill for the third spot is encouraging with regards to how the Ravens view him. Now, he’ll have to beat out a few running backs who might be a bit more well-known.

 

The Former Superstar: Le’Veon Bell

 

Remember when Le’Veon Bell was a fantasy football superstar? Those were good times.

The common narrative with Bell is that his production catered once he left the Steelers, but that’s not entirely accurate. In his final season with the team, he averaged just four yards/carry and 2.60 yards after contact/attempt, while PFF’s rushing grade regressed to 67.7. Since then, he’s held out for a year, has averaged just 3.4 yards/carry, and has clearly not looked the same athletically.

Last year, Bell did average 3.01 yards after contact/attempt, which is encouraging. Meanwhile, he’s still a trusted asset in the receiving game (77.3 PFF receiving grade, 66 receptions in 2019), although that means less in Baltimore. His experience in gap rushing schemes in Pittsburgh and his size (6’1″, 225 pounds) makes him a nice third-down option for the Ravens, in addition to a potential short-yardage threat.

Now, I will state that, with Bell, you’re not getting much in the way of big plays, which will limit his fantasy value. Furthermore, his receiving abilities don’t factor greatly in Baltimore. I doubt that, at 29-years-old, he’s going to see a major workload with them, and without much big-play ability, it’s not a very intriguing profile. Based on name value, he’ll be added right away in most fantasy leagues, though it may come to no avail.

 

Another Veteran: De’Vonta Freeman

 

Freeman was brought in just a day after Bell, and might actually see the 53-man roster faster. After all, he participated in a normal camp with the Saints before being released, whereas Bell may need to get back up the speed after not signing with a team until now.

However, that’s about all Freeman has in his favor. He’s earned a 60.5 PFF rushing grade or lower in back-to-back seasons, averaging just 3.48 yards/attempt during that span. Furthermore, he provides very little after contact(2.33 yards after contact/attempt) and thrived in zone-rushing schemes for his career.

At his peak, the 29-year-old was a big-play threat, which is why he was so successful in 2016 with offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. That being said, he averaged just a 16% breakaway rate in 2019 and a 0% (you read that right) breakaway rate in 2020. While breakaway% isn’t a super stable stat, nor is it predictive of future rushing performance, it does give us a lens about his declining athleticism.

Not a great fit for the Ravens rushing scheme and simply an ineffective runner as of late, it’s hard to see Freeman fitting in with this offense. He, like Bell, has some experience in the passing game, though the fact that he can be available until Bell is fully conditioned is likely the main reason behind his signing. It’s unclear who Baltimore utilizes the most, but you’ll want to bet on the most talented options. Sadly, Freeman doesn’t profile as that currently.

 

The Player Who Should Add: Latavius Murray

 

Just as I thought I had this all figured out, the Ravens add another running back as I’m writing this! Undoubtedly, Latavius Murray is the player to be most intrigued by here.

At 6’3″ and 230 pounds, Murray is a perfect fit for Baltimore as a power runner. Serving as the Saints’ short-yardage runner, averaged 4.43 yards/carry in and earning a 74.3+ PFF grade in each of his two seasons there. Although two years older than Bell and Freeman, he’s simply a more effective rusher right now; he’s more athletic, provides more power, and has been much more productive.

Interestingly, Murray directly replaced Mark Ingram in New Orleans, who went on to have success during his two-year stint to the Ravens. Meanwhile, he’s even been effective as a receiver, earning an 82.8 PFF receiving grade last year. In my opinion, there’s no reason to think he isn’t immediately Baltimore’s best running back, and I’m not sure it’s close.

 

The Verdict

 

So, who should you be targeting out of this backfield?

First off, Freeman would not be a player I’d want to add, in less in deeper leagues. His signing likely has more to do with a) Murray not being available until recently and b) Bell needing time to get back up to speed. Once Bell is ready as the team’s main running back in obvious passing situations, I wouldn’t be surprised if the team cut ties with him.

However, that doesn’t necessarily make Bell fantasy viable. This isn’t a friendly offense for running back receiving production, and he’s now struggled in terms of efficiency for three straight seasons. With such a heavy workload earlier in his career, it’s clear his best days may be behind him; despite his name value, might not be the player to add.

Instead, that honor goes to both Murray and Williams. Murray is by far, in my opinion, the best running back of the four, will be ready to go after being in training camp with the Saints, and perfectly fits Baltimore’s offense. He’s in a lot of ways a carbon copy of Gus Edwards, and might eventually offer similar fantasy value to what Edwards was projected for. However, Williams is likely his main obstacle. He’ll get the first crack to shine in a very favorable matchup versus the Raiders, and if he performs there, could have a longer leash than anticipated; he offers the most athleticism/big-play ability of the three

I eventually envision this being a committee between Murray, Williams, and Bell, similar to what it was last year between Dobbins, Edwards, and Ingram early in the year. I’d envision Murray with the highest snap rate, with Williams serving as the change-of-pace rusher and Bell being the receiving back with the least rushing volume, and game script may determine who wins out more than anything else. That being said, Baltimore has a win total of 11 games for a reason; they are expected to be in control of games and control the time of possession. With that in mind, the pecking order is pretty clear for me:

  1. Murray
  2. Williams
  3. Bell

If Baltimore fully trusted Williams, they clearly wouldn’t have brought in three different veteran running backs, and the signing of Murray doesn’t void well likely for Bell/Freeman. Really, though, the top result for the leader in carries is a FLEX starter, so I wouldn’t be overly stressed about trying to decipher the winner of this backfield. If you have Williams, enjoy his hopefully strong Week 1 performance, and perhaps look to even flip him at the right price.

However, Williams is likely owned, so to solve the million-dollar question: Murray is the player to add, with Bell an option in deeper leagues. I don’t expect this to have a dramatic impact on Baltimore’s ability to run the ball effectively – it’s such a favorable rushing scheme – so don’t expect a more pass-heavy offense just based on this. It will be incredibly interesting to see how this backfield sorts it out over time and reminds us how much uncertainty there is with evaluating situations in fantasy football. The Gus Bus may be down, but hopefully the “Tave Train” is in full force for the Ravens soon. If not, we’ll be out of acronyms to use to describe the running backs here!

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