Ravens

How should the Ravens split carries between their star running backs?

Ravens

Is there such a thing as having too many good options? For the Ravens' running game, the answer may very well be yes.

It's probably no, of course. In a sport as unpredictable as football, and at a position as violent as running back, you can never have too much depth. Especially for a team like the Ravens who like to run the ball more than any other team in the modern era.

The Ravens are blessed with a three-headed monster at running back, and that doesn't even include the head of their historic rushing attack, Lamar Jackson. Mark Ingram, JK Dobbins and Gus Edwards are enough to make any team jealous, a terrific trio who just so happens to be perfect fits in the Ravens' offensive scheme.

But with the blessing of enviable depth comes the curse of decision-making. Which running back should be carrying the load each week? Do Dobbins and Edwards deserve a significant bump in their attempts? What's the right way to slice up the pie that is the Ravens' run game?

The Ravens' rushing attack, while still strong, isn't quite as potent in 2020 as it was in 2019. Last season, the Ravens had by far the most efficient running game by DVOA, and of course, set the single-season rushing yards record. In 2020, they are the fifth-most prolific attack. Still good, but is it possible a change in the depth chart could unlock more production?

Let's turn to some stats, both advanced and traditional, to try to make sense of how the Ravens' three running backs have fared in the first quarter of the 2020 NFL season.

 

Traditional stats

Traditional stats like yards per carry paint a pretty clear picture. Gus Edwards, JK Dobbins (and Lamar Jackson, too) are averaging between 6.0 and 6.2 yards per carry. Mark Ingram? 4.4 yards per carry. Despite this, Ingram has carried the ball more than twice as often as Dobbins, and seven more times than Edwards - with much of Edwards' work coming in the fourth quarter of games out of reach.

This tracks with Edwards' history as a rusher. Since his first start in 2018, he leads all NFL running backs in yards per carry. He's currently second in the NFL in yards per carry this season, despite having a longest rush (24 yards) shorter than any other runner in the top 10. In other words, his average isn't boosted by a big outlier run - he consistently gets chunks of yardage on every rush.

Yards after contact is becoming a more popular, mainstream metric for evaluating runners too. Edwards shines here as well, leading the NFL among players with at least 25 rushes.

Ingram is getting the bulk of the workload, leading the group in rushes. Dobbins is getting the red zone opportunities, scoring two touchdowns already among his 15 rushes. But it's Edwards (fourth in the NFL in rushing yards without a touchdown this season) whose traditional numbers stand out the most, leading the running back room in rushing yards through four weeks.

Advanced metrics

There are a number of modern analytics that attempt to evaluate running back success, and they actually paint a clear picture, too. 

This chart shows just how much Edwards stands out early in the season. He is gaining more than 0.1 Expected Points Added than any other rusher in the NFL on every single attempt. This may not sound like a huge number, but the chart visualizes how wide that gap really is.

He combines this with the third-highest success rate in football - again, he is remarkably consistent in gaining chunk yardage. And it's not just excellent blocking or the Ravens' scheme. He's one of only two backs in the league to outgain his expected yards in all four games in 2020.

He also gets yards when the Ravens need it most - Edwards has the 25th most first downs this season, and every runner higher than him has at least 16 more carries. This has given him the best first down rate among all NFL running backs, despite facing a stacked box on nearly 41% of his carries - by far the highest number in the NFL.

In other words, he's done more than any other running back, while facing the most difficult defensive alignments. Talk about impressive.

 

Last season, Mark Ingram was the second most effective runner in football according to DVOA, but Edwards was sneakily eighth. This year? Ingram has still been good, but he's fallen to 13th. Edwards, meanwhile, is up to fourth. Oh and one spot ahead of him? His teammate, JK Dobbins.

Time for a change?

On the one hand, despite a step back from 2019, the Ravens still have three of the 13 most efficient running backs in football. On the other, both traditional and advanced metrics highlight a clear pecking order among the Ravens' rushers, and it doesn't match how the rushes have been divided up so far.

Ultimately, each of the Ravens' three running backs is deserving of getting some share of the carries. So far in 2020, not a single Ravens rusher has topped 10 carries in a single game, so this is a true committee.

Would feeding one or two players more carries make for an improvement? It's hard to tell. But what isn't difficult to tell is how wildly efficient Edwards and Dobbins have been to begin the season. Running back is a young man's game, and Ingram has beaten the odds by proving himself a valuable back over the age of 30. But his understudies are outperforming him so far. 

If they keep it up, the Ravens won't have any choice but to flip the depth chart on its head. Maybe they already should.