Ray Rice is entrenched as the Baltimore Ravens starting running back for the foreseeable future. However, ever since he has been a Raven there has always been a strong veteran presence in the backfield to give him some much needed rest. When he was a rookie he had a Pro Bowler in Willis McGahee and a ground and pound back in Le'Ron McClain to share the load. A few years later McClain left for Kansas City in hopes of getting more carries (unsuccessfully) and it was just Rice and Willis.
Then, last season, Willis, tired of being number two, left for the Denver Broncos and proved that he still has a lot left in the the tank as he had several games in which he rushed for over 100 yards in the Mile High city. The Ravens stood pat for most of the off season saying that they were happy with late round draft pick Anthony Allen as the back up to Rice. This proved to be more of a publicity ploy as the Ravens went on to sign veteran running back Ricky Williams before the season started. This signaled the end of Allen's chances of being the number two back in 2011. Williams went on to have quite a productive year as the Ravens number two back and Allen spent most of the season on the inactive list on game days.Again this off season the Ravens expressed their confidence in Allen as their back up to the All-Pro Rice. That is, until draft day when the team traded up in the third round to grab running back Temple running back Bernard Pierce. Pierce was a touchdown machine in college and runs a lot like Houston Texans running back Arian Foster. A player the Ravens have made no secret they are highly impressed with. Still the team gives no verbal commitment to either back saying that the final decision will come after a hard fought training camp battle.
Both Allen and Pierce provide very different running styles to the diminutive Rice. Allen is a bigger, bruising back that could provide a different option for the Ravens on short yardage or goal line plays. Pierce, on the other hand, is more of a work horse back that seems to get stronger and more powerful as the game progresses and with the more carries he gets. however with his upright running style he could be prone to injury at the next level. People hit a lot harder in the pros which could give pierce trouble if he is not in the right position to absorb these monstrous hits. Allen came from a triple option offense in college where he only carried the ball a hand full of times a game but was very productive when given the chance.Although a bigger back Allen has a lower to the ground running style that can make him harder to tackle than the straight ahead running Peirce.
Another player that may be a dark horse candidate given a strong preseason could be second year pro Damien Berry out of Miami. Berry spent last season on the practice squad but if he shows improvement this preseason he could turn some heads within the organization before the season starts. Although a long shot, stranger things have happened. For my money I would think 2012 will be another year on the practice squad for Berry. however he will always be only a play away from being called up to the big show if an injury occurs. Just ask Pittsburgh how easy it is to find yourself starting a third string back.
If both players have a strong preseason the Ravens could go back to doing more of a running back by committee offense, taking much of the pressure off of Rice and keeping him more fresh for the long haul. Rice would still garnish more than 80% of the carries but the other 20% could end up being split between the two. Or one of the two back ups could clearly outplay the other in preseason and win the back up role outright. It is hard to think that the Ravens would spend two draft picks on a guy without the intention of having him be an integral part of their offense in 2012 but I still think they have Anthony Allen in their plans for the very near future.
Allen has had a full year in the system now, giving him a clear advantage over the rookie if the season were to start today. Pierce however was a higher draft pick who the Ravens obviously have high hopes for at the NFL level. No matter who ends up being slated as the number two back, I'm sure the Ravens plan to use all three backs in different situations this season.
With what you have seen from the Ravens organization and what you have seen from both running backs at the collegiate level, who do you think will carry the rock the most behind Rice in 2012?