By now, you’ve heard the news: Ravens’ running back J.K. Dobbins will miss the 2021 season with a torn ACL.
An MRI today confirmed that Ravens’ RB J.K. Dobbins, one of the top young running backs in the game, suffered a season-ending torn ACL, per source.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 29, 2021
It’s a devastating blow for Dobbins, who was hoping to parlay an immensely promising 2020 rookie year into a breakout 2021 campaign that would announce him as one of the best running backs in the NFL. That went out the window on Saturday night after he left the field on a cart following an ugly collision between him and a few Washington defenders.
As difficult a situation as it is for Dobbins, the obvious hope and expectation is that he’ll back and ready to roar for 2022. So naturally our next question is this: just how much does this leave the Ravens in the lurch for their immediate future?
It’s a multi-tiered answer to a difficult question, and the first and foremost response is that there are things Dobbins brings to the table which can’t be replaced such as remarkable explosiveness and uncanny balance. But the good news is, Baltimore actually already possesses a reasonable facsimile of this unique skillset on their roster, and at this point it’s no secret who boasts it.
Ty’Son Williams is a young running back who’s been in the picture with the Ravens for a little while now. After a knee injury ended his college career for the BYU Cougars just as it was finally starting to take off in the 2019 season, Williams signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent in 2020. He spent much of the year on the team’s practice squad, save for a few uneventful stints on the gameday roster down the stretch of the season.
Following 2020, he signed a reserve/futures contract with the team to ensure he’d have a spot in camp the following year. It’s over the last few weeks that we’ve seen why it was a wise decision for the Ravens to keep him in the picture. Now, with Dobbins sidelined for the year, we might just get an even closer look at why that’s the case than we were expecting (or, hoping). Much of what he’s put on tape in the preseason so far, plus looking back at what he did at BYU in relatively limited action is ample evidence of that.
Balance + Power
The ability to simply bounce off defenders following first contact and keep his legs churning forward is what immediately jumps off the screen with Williams to me — and it’s easy to see why. It was on display in spurts at South Carolina where he didn’t see the field as much as we would’ve liked, and more so at BYU after transferring there to try and find more involvement in an offense.
His ability to run with a combination of elegance and determination was on display in his first touchdown for the Cougars:
His short, choppy steps and also his nose to keep punching the ball forward is actually pretty reminiscent of what we saw from Dobbins at times in 2020. And this is of course far from the only example we see of it from him:
Then BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes once described his offensive schematic vision via the following acronym: “RVO.” This stands for “Reliable Violent Offense” and is the core tenet of what he looks for in his players. The wide zone run scheme that he employed with Williams (and perhaps not coincidentally Zach Wilson, a major benefactor of the approach as well) doesn’t look all that dissimilar from some of the looks Williams may receive should he step into J.K. Dobbins shoes to some degree in 2021.
The main similarity is that he should see plenty of handoffs out of the shotgun, just as he did in college. Dobbins led the entire NFL in shotgun carry rate (#1 with a 93.28%) where he had 6.7 yards per carry. Williams combo of patience and violence suits him well to take up that mantle, and a perfect example of this is on display below:
Getting carried into the end zone thanks to his ability to keep the play moving, and an assist from his overpowering offensive line . . . sound familiar? Speaking of familiar, if any of this feels that way thus far, it might have to do with the fact that we just saw much of this on display with Williams’ most impressive play of the preseason:
Production in the preseason doesn’t mean anything, but anyone who says you get literally nothing out of watching the games is being a little too cool for school. You can certainly scout the traits you’re looking for in a player, and the above touchdown run is a perfect example of it. Light on his feet, powering forward, and knowing exactly when to reach for the goal line and reach pay dirt: the Ravens will certainly be looking for plenty of that in Dobbins’ absence and they’re looking at it with plays like this.
Speed kills, speed thrills
The above phrase once adorned a shirt than John Harbaugh wore to a 2019 training camp stadium practice. Since Lamar Jackson has taken over at quarterback, adding dynamic players with the speed to keep the defense on it’s heels has been a philosophical approach the team’s brass has stuck to. In that regard, it makes plenty of sense that after watching some of his reps at BYU that they would prioritize Williams as a sign-and-stash UDFA following his injury in 2019.
The following play is the perfect example of that:
Maybe the most impressive rep Williams has ever put on tape, it showcases his concentration (taking the handoff cleanly, faking the pitch with ease) and NFL-caliber athleticism to nearly tightrope his way to a touchdown. Perhaps what it mainly shows is a type of versatility that will aid him in a running back-friendly Greg Roman offense. We’re obviously not going to see much of anything tangible from the offense in preseason. However, what we have seen is a good amount of pre-snap motion both from tight ends (a-la Josh Oliver along the line of scrimmage) and wide receivers, mainly Devin Duvernay being brought behind the pocket in orbit motions.
He also will likely be seeing looks in the option game that the Ravens will likely still be heavily incorporating. Gus Edwards is now the de facto lead back of the offense and will be still probably be receiving the lion’s share of the standard mesh point read option looks out of the pistol and the gun (which he’s excelled at his entire career). There are specific option plays that went Dobbins’ way last year, though, that will be better suited to Williams’ skillset in 2021.
This isn’t a Dobbins deep-dive, so this will be the only clip I post of him to provide context on Williams’ fit:
There’s nothing overly complex here; just a quick pitch for Dobbins to reel in and then follow Pat Ricard and the bullying offensive line the rest of the way. Williams saw some similar chances at BYU, and thanks to his accommodating profile, he looked pretty good when he got them:
You can see the stylistic similarities not only in the play calls, but in the way Williams executes his assignment. In this case, it’s to reel the ball in, and then be an athlete. In both examples, he did his job.
“Next man up”
Ultimately, it’s quite obvious that the Ravens weren’t exactly hoping to see if Williams could prove to be a reasonable replacement for Dobbins in 2021 but for his purposes, a most welcome opportunity has opened up.
Whether it’s for a future with the Ravens or an audition to take over as a lead runner for another team in the near future, the chance to step into Dobbins’ role and be a productive, dynamic runner (and receiver) the onus now lies on Williams to get it done in 2021. There’s no guarantee he’ll do so, but as we’ve now discussed, he has the skillset to do so.
Does he have the mentality, determination, (and of course, luck) on his side to be an undrafted free agent success story like many Ravens before him? Time will tell, but it clearly won’t be for a lack of ability. Here’s hoping he can capitalize.