The Ravens signed Devonta Freeman to their practice squad on Sept. 9 in the wake of season-ending injuries to their projected Top-3 running backs entering the season. Freeman joined a trio of signings the Ravens made at the position, the other two being Latavius Murray and Le’Veon Bell.
Freeman was promoted to the active roster ahead of the team’s Week 2 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this season. In that game, he touched the ball just twice, but his very first carry went for a gain of 31 yards.
This would ultimately foreshadow his tenure with the Ravens this season. Not ripping off huge plays left and right necessarily, but exceeding expectations. Nobody could have expected Freeman to run for 30+ on his first touch, and nobody would have expected him to seize the lead running back role in Baltimore this season. But that is what happened.
Between Weeks 2-5, Freeman received only seven carries and was only targeted in the passing game four times. During this spain, fellow journeyman and free agent signee Latavius Murray received the bulk of the workload out of the backfield. This trend quickly changed as the season progressed into the middle portion.
In Week 7 against the Chargers, Freeman turned a then-season-high nine carries into 53 yards and a touchdown. Two weeks later, he rushed 13 times for 79 yards against the Vikings and adding a receiving touchdown to help lead the Ravens to an overtime victory.
This marked the beginning of a five-game stretch in which Freeman received 10+ carries in every single game. The results of him serving as the No. 1 running back certainly haven’t been dominant or otherworldly, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
In 10 of the 15 games Freeman has played in this year, he’s averaged less than 4.0 yards per carry — not exactly a stellar resume. However, the eye test tells you that he’s consistently run with conviction and showed more juice than anyone could have anticipated.
After doing very little in the NFL the past two years, Freeman’s ability to make defenders miss in space and turn short gains into longer ones has been a welcome surprise this season. Him and Murray are roughly the same age but between the two of them, there’s no question who the Ravens’ most explosive running back has been in 2021.
There was hopes that Ty’Son Williams could be this player for the Ravens but that idea quickly faded after the first couple weeks of the season. Freeman’s pass-catching and pass-blocking ability out of the backfield has been a welcome skillset, too, as the Ravens have not had another true third-down running back on the roster.
He’s also been a viable scoring threat with six total touchdowns on the year and has demonstrated good ball security, which shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Most touches without a drop or fumble this season (PFF)— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) January 4, 2022
1. Elijah Mitchell (205)
2. Devonta Freeman (160)
No other running back or receiver has reached even 60 touches without at least one drop or fumble.
Freeman obviously can’t replicate what J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards bring to the table but given the circumstances, he has performed admirably. At the very least, his contributions have given the Ravens a spark at the position where they otherwise would not have one.
The fact of the matter is, though, that Freeman almost certainly never would have been on the Ravens’ radar if they had not lost Dobbins and Edwards prior to the season. Under the assumption that both players recover fully and are ready to go next year, the question begs: has Freeman done enough to earn staying power with the Ravens beyond 2021?
It’s a bit of a complicated question, but it’s hard to see how the arrows aren’t currently pointing to yes.
There’s probably not a world in which the Ravens retain Latavius Murray in the offseason, meaning aside from Dobbins and Edwards, the only other in-house, returning running backs are Justice Hill, Williams and Nate McCrary.
Hill too is recovering from an torn Achilles injury that he suffered prior to Week 1. Before his season ended due to injury, he was on the roster bubble and in jeopardy of losing his 53-man spot to Williams. McCrary spent most of the season on the Ravens’ practice squad, aside from a short stint where he was signed and then released by the Denver Broncos. Williams showed flashes early in 2021 but eventually became a non-factor as Freeman and Murray seized the workload.
Needless to say, there isn’t necessarily a ton of promise at the position after Dobbins and Edwards. Few teams need a ton of production from the No. 3 running back on their roster — the Ravens included — but it can be beneficial to have a proven commodity at that spot, as this season kind of demonstrated.
Not only does Freeman carry the advantage of having veteran experience, but he also has a much more complete and all-around skillset than the aforementioned players above. His play this season may afford him the opportunity to sign a one-year deal with another team in the offseason, but the Ravens should make a strong attempt to keep him around.
As Dobbins, Edwards and Hill continue to recover during this upcoming offseason, it’s likely at least one of them, if not more, will not be ready right away for OTAs, training camp, etc. Having a veteran around at the position, who now has a year’s worth of experience in the offensive system, is a nice luxury to have.
If one of the younger options ultimately would beat Freeman out for a roster spot, power to them. There’s little to no risk involved in retaining him and it wouldn’t cost much at all to do so.