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Is J.K. Dobbins playing a dangerous game with the mystery around his absence?

The lack of clarity surrounding his status could put his long-term future with the Ravens in doubt.

Baltimore Ravens Training Camp Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

There’s no doubt about who the best running back is on the Baltimore Ravens. While he hasn’t been able to stay consistently stay on the field nor produce at full capability due to a somewhat limited offensive role, J.K. Dobbins is the most gifted running back talent in Baltimore since prime Ray Rice.

The team’s offense is better and more dangerous whenever he’s on the field. His quarterback, Lamar Jackson, said as such during an interview with NFL Network on Saturday following an open stadium practice.

“He means a lot to our offense,” Jackson said. “He’s one of the guys that sparks the offense and gets us going. When we’re having a slow start sometimes, he gets the ball and makes magic happen. So I can’t wait for him to get back our on the field with us.”

Dobbins is entering the final year of his rookie contract. The former second-round pick out of Ohio State is reportedly seeking more compensation for this upcoming season, whether in the form of an extension or a pay raise.

He has yet to take part in training camp practice as he remains on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list. That wouldn’t ordinarily be too worrisome in some cases. However, where this particular situation is a little confounding is the lack of clarification as to why Dobbins isn’t participating in practices.

Head Coach John Harbaugh was asked about at this first media availability of training camp last Wednesday and said, “that’s a J.K. question.”

“I wish there was a simple answer,” Harbaugh went on to say. “There’s some complexity to it. We’re working through all that, J.K.’s working through it. There’s always a lot of things that go into it. I’m looking forward to when he’s out there.”

When asked if he could provide a timeline of when he expects Dobbins to be back on the field, Harbaugh said he “wouldn’t be able to say at this time” but does believe that Dobbins “will get ready” and that “he’ll be happy when he’s out there.”

“He wants to be out there, and we both want the same thing,” Harbaugh added.

While his coach’s words suggests that the two sides are still in a good place with the same goal in mind, Dobbins actions over the past several months tell a different story.

He didn’t attend the voluntary portion of the offseason program and essentially held-in during mandatory minicamp. He did, however, tell local news station WJZ Sports in an interview that he’d like to finish his career in Baltimore.

The devaluation of the running back position is a topic that’s been sizzling for a few years now. This summer, it’s become the hottest and most highly debated story in the NFL. It’s been especially decisive in recent weeks. Following the franchise tag negotiating deadline, none of the three Pro Bowl running backs inked reached long-term extensions.

Even though Dobbins has the talent to be just as good — if not even better — than some his more accomplished contemporaries around the league, he doesn’t possess the same amount of leverage as they do.

The little bit of leverage that he does have could be shrinking with each training camp practice he misses. It’s giving other running backs on the roster an opportunity to show what they can do with first team reps in a new system under first-year offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Some of them have already begun turning heads with their performance in practice, albeit without pads on.

The Ravens signed two-time Pro Bowl running back Melvin Gordon just before training camp got underway. He’s is chomping at the bit to bounce back from a down with the Denver Broncos in 2022. Prior to that, though, he had back-to-back seasons of over 900 rushing yards and at least 10 touchdowns from scrimmage.

“Being the new guy, you got to take each and every opportunity for what its work and make the best of it,” Gordon said Saturday in an interview. “When I get the ball in my hands and I get to do my thing, I just got to show them why I’m still valuable.”

He has experience in holding out for a new contract after doing so in 2019 following his second Pro Bowl season. He confirmed to Baltimore Banner’s Kyle Goon that Dobbins is indeed doing the same.

“They’re not even making a big headline out of it, unless you’re in Indy, I guess. And they got other players sitting out. I didn’t even know J.K. was sitting out until I came here,” Gordon said.

Another running back that’s been generating buzz is undrafted free agent rookie Keaton Mitchell. He is not only a Ravens legacy as the son of former special teams ace Anthony Mitchell but he also possess game-breaking speed and playmaking ability.

Harbaugh said he believes Mitchell “has a shot in this league” and Special Teams Coordinator Chris Horton heaped some more praise on the first-year pro this past Friday.

“He’s done a good job,” Horton said about how Mitchell has looked on special teams. “This dude can flat out run. That’s a plus. Once we get the pads on, and we start getting into a lot more team things, I’ll try to put him in places where I think it fits his game.”

The former East Carolina University standout is one of a handful of players that he Ravens are working in as a returner, which Mitchell has experience doing from college.

With two-time Pro Bowler Devin Duvernay also heading into the final year of his contract, Mitchell could factor into the team’s immediate and future plans.

“I’m just trying to give every guy every opportunity to make this football team,” Horton said. “As far as what (Mitchell)’s done so far, since this spring, he’s headed on the right track.”

In addition to standing out on special teams, which would be his best bet to make the roster, Mitchell has looked good on offense as well.

Baltimore Beatdown’s own Managing Editor Kyle Barber reported on Friday that he has “begun to pop on the field.” On the second day of camp, Barber noted that Mitchell was quite involved as a receiver and scored a touchdown run in the red zone later in practice.

There’s no denying Dobbins talent and it’s tantalizing to imagine him being heavily featured in Moken’s offense, surrounded by a bevy of other playmakers poised to have prominent roles. However, they’d likely still be able to field one of the most explosive and dynamic units in the league without him if his absence persist into the regular season.

Unlike is the case with the New York Giants, where quarterback Daniel Jones is elevated by the presence and impact of two-time Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley, in Baltimore, Jackson is player that elevates everyone around him. The former league MVP is an especially helpful force multiplier for his running backs because of the tremendous and electric threat he presents as a ball carrier himself.

If Dobbins’ reason for not being on the field is another negotiating tactic or the team’s way of letting him hold-in while not taking up a roster spot, the only ones benefiting are his fellow running back teammates.

The better impression they can make between now and final cut-down day helps their case to stick around and possibly even cut into Dobbins’ snap count once the regular season roles around. That may very well end up being the case either way with Gordon, who has proven he can be a dangerous weapon out of the backfield.

There’s also the presence of Gus Edwards, who has also struggled with injuries the past few years but is one of the most punishing and potent ball carriers in the league. Edwards has a career average of 5.2 yards per carry.

He is also heading into the final year of his contract but has taken the opposite approach to his impending situation. He was a participant in both the voluntary and mandatory portion of the offseason program, albeit on a limited basis, and didn’t open training camp on the PUP (or any other list).

Fifth-year veteran Justice Hill is the unheralded member of the bunch who was re-signed to a new contract in March. In addition to being an ace on special teams, where he contributes as a both a returner and gunner on coverage units, Hill has shown flashes of playmaking ability throughout his career. He’s coming off the most productive offensive season of his career, as he set personal bests in rushing yards (262) and yards per carry (5.3).

In summary, the Ravens have no shortage of talented running backs who, combined, could more than make up for the all-in-one package that Dobbins presents. As harsh as it sounds, the best path forward for the 24-year-old is to play out this season, stay healthy, and hopefully get rewarded in Baltimore or elsewhere.

Unfortunately, if this summer has shown the modern football world anything, it’s that the veteran running back market can be a cold and cut-throat business for even the most gifted players at the position.