If the Baltimore Ravens’ running back group were to have an imaginary sign hanging from their collective necks, it would read: "Under Construction". With the recent retirement of back-up running back, Ricky Williams, and the drama swirling around Ray Rice’s contract status, the running back situation heading into next season is a little bit of a mystery for the Ravens.
An organization that seems to live by the motto: "right player, right price", the Ravens have not been shy about bringing in veteran running back talent from outside their own confines. Seemingly forever ago, the Ravens traded for Willis McGahee in 2007 sending a few draft picks to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for the veteran running back. Last year’s off-season saw even more change at the position when the Ravens released McGahee and let Le'Ron McClain, the multi-purpose RB/FB, walk in free agency, and then in August about a month before the start of pre-season, the Ravens signed former 1st round draft pick, Ricky Williams.
With a bit of a revolving door at the #2 running back position, it seems like a trend has started in Baltimore where the Ravens look for a new role player behind Ray Rice every couple of years.
So, with a solid class of free agent running backs this year, who will the Ravens pursue to become Ray Rice’s next back-up?
(After the "Jump", see a complete list of soon-to-be free agent running backs, and which ones the Ravens could make a run at signing.)
Though Ray Rice has become one of the best all-purpose running backs in the NFL, he is just one man and needs a break every now and then. One of the areas the Ravens need to improve upon is in short-yardage and goal line situations and the need for a bigger, bruising running back became more evident as the season wore on and into the playoffs.
Fortunately for the Ravens, this year’s free-agent running back class will be loaded with several promising possible players that could help elevate their rushing attack, and fill their need for a big, punishing running back.
Here is a complete list of 2012 free-agent-to-be running backs (minus Ravens’ Ray Rice):
Matt Forte (Chicago)
Marshawn Lynch (Seattle)
Peyton Hillis (Cleveland)
Mike Tolbert (San Diego)
BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England)
Cedric Benson (Cincinnati)
Michael Bush (Oakland)
Ryan Grant (Green Bay)
Arian Foster (Houston) - restricted
Chester Taylor (Arizona)
Jason Snelling (Atlanta)
Jerome Felton (Carolina)
Tashard Choice (Dallas)
Sammy Morris (Dallas)
Spencer Larsen (Denver)
LenDale White (Denver)
Maurice Morris (Detroit)
Kevin Smith (Detroit)
Derrick Ward (Houston)
Jackie Battle (Kansas City)
Thomas Jones (Kansas City)
Le'Ron McClain (Kansas City)
Steve Slaton (Miami)
Kevin Faulk (New England)
LaDainian Tomlinson (New York Jets)
Rock Cartwright (Oakland)
Ronnie Brown (Philadelphia)
Owen Schmitt (Philadelphia)
Mewelde Moore (Pittsburgh)
Jacob Hester (San Diego)
Justin Forsett (Seattle)
Moran Norris (San Francisco)
Jerious Norwood (St. Louis)
Cadillac Williams (St. Louis)
Earnest Graham (Tampa Bay)
Ahmard Hall (Tennessee)
Tim Hightower (Washington)
LaRod Stephens-Howling (Arizona) - restricted
Antone Smith (Atlanta) - exclusive rights
Kahlil Bell (Chicago) - restricted
Chris Pressley (Cincinnati) - restricted
Lance Ball (Denver) - exclusive rights
Brock Bolen (Jacksonville) - restricted
Lex Hilliard (Miami) - restricted
Lorenzo Booker (Minnesota) - restricted
Isaac Redman (Pittsburgh) - exclusive rights
Brit Miller (St. Louis) - restricted
LeGarrette Blount (Tampa Bay) - exclusive rights
Kregg Lumpkin (Tampa Bay) – restricted
With a large free agent group that’s stocked with some good talent, teams will be sorting through this list trying to find a free agent gem that can help their team. Though some of the most notable free agent running backs are most likely to return to their respective teams for the 2012-2013 season, such as: Arian Foster, Matt Forte, and Marshawn Lynch, there will be several running backs that slip through the cracks and make it into free agency. A few of the backs that could fit the Ravens’ needs are:
Mike Tolbert: Though he may be one of the more expensive free-agent running backs on the market, the San Diego Chargers’ versatile back could fit the mold of what the Ravens are looking for. At 5-9 243 lbs, Tolbert is a big, punishing back with a good nose for the end zone. With Rice standing at 5-8 212 lbs, Tolbert could be a perfect compliment to the smaller, shiftier Rice by becoming a great asset to the Ravens in short-yardage and goal line situations. Tolbert is also a great receiving threat for such a big back, and has the ability to make plays as a receiver out of the back-field with no problem. The only knock against Tolbert would be that through four years with the Chargers, he has totaled 8 fumbles. At just 26 years old, Tolbert has a lot left in the tank and would be a great addition as a dual-threat running back.
2011 Stats: 121 carries/498 yards/4.0 yards-per-carry average/8 TDs
54 receptions/433 yards/8.0 yards-per-catch average/2 TDs
Michael Bush: Bush is another running back that may be a bit too pricey for the Ravens this off-season. The 6-1 245 lbs back has shown flashes of excellence and the ability to carry the full workload as a #1 running back in the league. With his counter-part, Darren McFadden often injured, the Oakland Raiders may place a high priority on retaining Bush. As a very "north-south" runner, Bush is another big, punishing back that would fit well into what the Ravens are looking for. With a very strong 2011 season in which he had the chance to show his worth, if the Raiders don’t retain him, expect several teams to be calling him for his services. With tremendous up-side at just 27 years old and the ability to carry a full work-load, it would serve teams well around the league to consider Bush as a good target this off-season as a running back with #1 potential for maybe #2 kind of money.
2011 Stats: 256 carries/977 yards/3.8 yards-per-carry average/7 TDs
37 receptions/418 yards/11.3 yards-per-catch average/1 TD
Le’Ron McClain: The former Baltimore Raven didn’t have the season he had hoped for with the Kansas City Chiefs this year. After openly petitioning to garner more carries while with the Ravens, McClain headed south to the Chiefs in free agency last year in the hopes to become a true #1 running back. While that didn’t happen, he shouldn’t be over-looked this off-season as a possibility to land with the Ravens. At 6-0 260 lbs, McClain has shown in the past his ability to be a big, hard-running back. Before Rice took over for the Ravens, McClain gained 902 yards and 10 TDs for the Ravens in 2008, and he could provide the Ravens of now with a good short-yardage, goal line, hard nosed running back. With Vonta Leach as the full-time starting full back for the Ravens, McClain could focus on becoming the running back that he always wanted to be and could perhaps boost a Ravens’ red-zone offense that struggled at times at "punching it in". McClain could most likely be had for a very low price, and provide major upside. After being away for a year and being a part of a seemingly dysfunctional locker-room, McClain might relish the opportunity to play for a stable, competitive team once again.
2011 Stats: 15 carries/51 yards/3.4 yards-per-carry average/ 1 TD
14 receptions/82 yards/5.9 yards-per-catch average/1 TD
So, there we have it. With lots of options to choose from, look for the Ravens to make a move at a free agent running back at some point this off-season. As long as it’s the "right player for the right price", the Ravens could perhaps pluck away a potential gem this year and find someone that could back up Rice for another few years. Anyone that the Ravens bring in will surely be competing for the back-up role against last year’s 7th round pick, Anthony Allen, who showed some of his skills as a power running back in last year’s pre-season games. Allen could prove with a strong training camp and another impressive pre-season that he could be a big part of the Ravens’ future at running back.
Which, if any, free agent running back(s) do you think the Ravens make a run at during free agency? Tell me who’s on your wish list in the comments section below!