Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro is the best running back on the Ravens roster. While Justin Forsett is having his best year as a pro and was leading the NFL in yards per carry going into Week 8, the rookie showed that he is the best option going forward.
Hear me out on this one...
Justin Forsett currently sits at a 5.5 yard per carry average and has been a true redemption story. Bouncing from team to team during his career and getting few chances to prove himself, showing that he can be a lead back for a contender is certainly a story worth printing. However, as Forsett's career has shown, he isn't the most reliable rusher in the league.
Forsett started his career in Seattle in 2009, rushing 114 times for 619 yards, earning himself a 5.4 yard per carry average. The next year, he faltered to 4.4 yards per carry on a similar number of rush attempts. 2011 saw him have his worst year as he got his rushes slashed down to 46 carries for only 145 yards, leaving him at a 3.2 yard per carry average. Bouncing around to Houston and Jacksonville the last two years, Forsett found himself on the outside looking in and brought into a Baltimore Ravens team that had notorious issues at the running back position and in need of a short term replacement.
The plan was never to have Forsett long term and it was never to have him see this much action. He was really going to be a compliment to Bernard Pierce and to be an option out of the backfield. Obviously, things had to change when the hammer dropped.
Enter the beginning of the NFL season: The Ravens cut Ray Rice and find themselves hoping that the combination of Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will work out well enough to not get quarterback Joe Flacco murdered. As we have seen so far this season, Pierce has either been dinged up or just plan ineffective when used, sitting at 3.6 yards per carry on the season. While Forsett has been great so far, the biggest question is ultimately if you want to give a nearly 30 year old running back a contract that would keep him in purple or if you need to look elsewhere in a hurry at the end of the season.
Given the way the last running back lasted in Baltimore, my guess is that it is an emphatic "NO". Weigh in Forsett's inconsistencies over the years and I think it is apparent that the Ravens let him go to the highest bidder or they put in a small contract offer for a year or two in order to keep him as a backup. With Pierce's serious inconsistencies and injury history, it wouldn't be too difficult to see the Ravens completely let him go this offseason.
That leaves us with one guy looking in, rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. 2015 will mark the second season in a four season deal for the fourth round selection from Coastal Carolina. Low cost and being a recent draft selection will almost assuredly see Taliaferro stay a Ravens for a while longer while the Ravens look to get out from the Ray Rice contract penalty in 2015. The Ravens will also likely look to add another running back via the draft for depth and to hopefully groom another star player.
With Bernard Pierce as a healthy scratch in Cincinnati, it appears that the Ravens have pushed Taliaferro up the depth chart. With his 4.4 yards per carry average, and his TD average of one in every 13 touches, the young kid certainly passes the stat test that goes with the eye test. Looking at him play, you can see that he is quickly learning how to be a single cut back in the NFL that excels in the zone blocking scheme that the Ravens are running. 6-feet tall and a stout 226-pounds, the running back has the frame of a goal line bruiser, yet he runs faster and is more agile than his 4.58 40-yard time would indicate.
Look at that. Makes the cut at the hash mark, bounces it inside where the defense has vacated, bounces off a tackle and then carries three Panthers another seven yards. The kid is a beast!
You might be asking yourself why he isn't starting right now and you would be absolutely right to ask that question. First is the idea that Justin Forsett is just playing lights out football right now, both as a runner and as a pass catcher out of the backfield and is most similar to Ray Rice, which the team has more familiarity with. Second, like most rookies, he isn't quite there in terms of knowledge yet.
While his draft profile has him being a very intelligent player with the ability to learn quickly; being able to decipher what is shown into what is actually coming is a skill that requires more study than anything in football. Blitz pickup is a major part of any running back's responsibilities when playing as a full three down player and it takes time to learn that. What I see is the kid learning exactly that and with his frame, he can be a solid blocker.
So you might also be asking how he could possibly be better than Forsett when he has a lower average than Forsett. Taliaferro has been used an astounding 31% in short yardage situations (3 yards and under) where he averages only 2.2 ypc — which makes sense when the entire stadium knows where it is going. Take out that and you have a huge increase to 5.4 ypc! His four touchdowns come on these short runs meaning that he is clearly effective as a short-yardage rusher
How does that make him the best running back the Ravens have even though he is averaging less yards per carry and isn't quite there with his blitz pickup? Well it doesn't, yet. As we discussed above, the Ravens are more likely to see Taliaferro be the lone rusher on the roster come the end of the season.
That will see Taliaferro's reps increase this year as the Ravens look to see what they have with him. With increased playing time, he will get more chances to learn under fire and improve all around. Once he gets the blitz pickup and some minor intricacies on how, when and where to cut; he will make a finely polished runner that will make you think of Jamal Lewis or a healthy Arian Foster. Those are some lofty comparisons, but he is showing all the markings of that type of player in Gary Kubiak's system and Ravens fans should be excited to look for number 34 lining up behind Joe Flacco.