The 2022 Ravens Backfield Breakdown is part of an offseason series in which I take a deep dive into one NFL team’s backfield and examine the respective rushing performances of the players in it. In doing so, I hope to gain insights into key players from a talent evaluation standpoint. I want to use that evaluation as a baseline from a dynasty valuation standpoint. The first installments in the series can be found here.
I’ll start by taking a quick overview of each team’s raw rushing volume and propensity to run the ball. Then, I’ll dive into the player evaluation portion. Before we start, let’s define the metrics I’ll use as part of those evaluations:
Yards per Carry+ (or YPC+)
The degree to which a player’s raw yard per carry average exceeds or falls short of the collective yard per carry average of all other running backs on his team. Meant to be an overview of a player’s team-relative efficiency.
The degree to which the average amount of defenders in the box that a player faces on his runs exceeds or falls short of the collective average faced by the other running backs on his team. Considering that the outcome of any given rushing attempt is largely dependent on the number of defenders in the box pre-snap, Box Count+ describes the relative degree of difficulty of a running back’s carries.
Breakaway Conversion Rate (BCR)
Quantifies performance in the open field by measuring how often a player turns his chunk runs of at least 10 yards into breakaway gains of at least 20 yards.
Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating (BAE Rating)
Improves upon YPC+ by accounting for the box counts that a player carried the ball against. Looks at team-relative yards per carry against each individual box count, then uses a weighted average (based on total carries against each box count) to generate an overall score. A score of 100-percent indicates that a player is producing exactly the per carry output of his teammates, a score above 100-percent indicates that he is outdoing their per carry output to whatever degree, and vice versa for a score below 100-percent.
Relative Success Rate (RSR)
Measures player consistency using Success Rate, but relative to his teammates and adjusted for the box counts that he faced in the same way that BAE Rating is. “Success” on a given carry is defined by gaining 40-percent of yards needed on first down, 70-percent of yards needed on second down, and 100-percent of yards needed on third or fourth down. A score of 0.0-percent indicates that a player is succeeding on exactly the same percentage of his carries as are the other backs on his team, a positive score indicates that he is succeeding more often than his teammates are, and vice versa for a negative score.
Measures the disparity between a running back’s percentile ranks in BAE Rating and RSR in order to indicate how volatile a player’s per-carry performance is. High overall efficiency paired with a low rate of success indicates boom/bust output, while low overall efficiency paired with a high rate of success indicates steady, low-ceiling output. Measures the degree of volatility, not the quality of performance.
Composite Efficiency Score (CES)
Presents a single-metric overview of the quality of team-relative performance a player produced on his carries in a single season. Calculated using the average of a player’s percentile ranks in Box-Adjusted Efficiency Rating and Relative Success Rate represents player performance on a 0-100 scale.
Team Rushing Volume
In 2021, the Baltimore Ravens finished their schedule with the third-most rushing attempts in the NFL. Their 517 rushing attempts represented 64 more than the league mean. That third-place finish was actually the lowest Baltimore has had since they drafted Lamar Jackson back in 2018. They were the run-heaviest team in the league in all three of the previous seasons.
According to rbsdm.com, the Ravens’ situational propensity to run the ball was actually far less than what their raw rushing totals would suggest. In 2021, they ranked just No. 21 in the NFL in early down run rate in neutral game script situations (when win probability for either team did not exceed 80-percent). This indicates a commitment to throwing the ball in circumstances that allowed the playbook to be wide open. Through the first three years of the Jackson era, the Ravens ranked No. 1 in early down, neutral game script run rate. Despite high overall rushing volume, last year actually marked a stark turnaround for this offense.
Running Back Injuries and Pass Catchers
Further evidence of Baltimore’s newfound relative balance on offense is the fact that they opted to run the ball only 1-percent more often than expected (given league-wide play-by-play data) given the down-and-distance situations they found themselves in last season.
Things could look slightly different for this offense in 2022. Running backs J.K. Dobbins and Gus Edwards will presumably be back after both of them missed all of last season with ACL injuries. On the other hand, last year’s leading target-earner at wide receiver is no longer with the team. Marquise Brown was traded to the Arizona Cardinals. Second-year man Rashod Bateman is now atop the depth chart. Bateman will pair with tight end Mark Andrews to pick up the pass-catching slack. This combination of changes could portend a return to the more extreme version of smashmouth football that the Ravens played from 2018 to 2020. Either way, this offense will once again be near the top of the NFL in rushing volume.
In the absence of the aforementioned Dobbins and Edwards, a pair of veteran journeymen in Devonta Freeman and Latavius Murray served as the lead backs in Baltimore in 2021. Behind them, Ty’son Williams and Le’Veon Bell each had fleeting roles in the first half of the season. Trenton Cannon and Nate McCrary combined for three rushing attempts. Here are the full rushing efficiency profiles for each of those six runners:
While Freeman and Murray ran into vastly different defensive fronts, their effectiveness in those different circumstances was very similar on the aggregate. As you would expect from steady, veteran players they each offered some level of positive efficiency overall (their Box-Adjusted Efficiency Ratings were in the 57th and 51st-percentiles, respectively). However, their real value was in providing consistency (Relative Success Rates in the 77th and 85th-percentiles, respectively).
Williams was a tremendous boom/bust option during his three-week run at the beginning of the season. He produced an 87th-percentile BAE Rating but the No. 6-highest Volatility Rating among backs with at least 10 carries in the last six years.
Bell was very bad on his limited work. He has now failed to produce a BAE Rating above the 40th-percentile since his final season in Pittsburgh back in 2017.
Cannon and McCrary didn’t do enough to fairly judge, but I will do so anyway. They sucked.
So Now What?
This is one of the strangest backfields to breakdown vis-a-vis the performances of their backs from last season. This is because none of their top-five 2021 ballcarriers are even on the team right now. The backs who are currently under contract in Baltimore are the following veterans: Dobbins, Edwards, McCrary, Justice Hill, and Mike Davis. Sixth-round rookie Tyler Badie and UDFA rookie Ricky Person were additions made during and after the draft.
The “now what?” question here mostly applies to Dobbins and Edwards. As a rookie in 2020, Dobbins posted a 79th-percentile BAE Rating and a 46th-percentile RSR. He was one of the most volatile runners in the league that year. However, Dobbins proved very dynamic especially in the open field. He also proved similarly boom/bust during his final season at Ohio State. Dobbins producing a BAE Rating in the 61st-percentile to pair with an RSR in the 39th-percentile.
Edwards’ ran tremendously on over 100 carries in each of his three seasons in the NFL. His BAE Ratings in 2018 and 2019 were both above the 75th-percentile. In 2020, his performance in that metric dipped to the 46th-percentile. The good news is Edwards has never posted a negative RSR. He’s a steady runner who provides some lowkey juice.
The Best of the Rest
Hill and Davis are not very good. Hill posted Composite Efficiency Scores of 8.7 and 33.2 in the two NFL seasons in which he’s handled work on the ground. Despite a 4.6-percent RSR that comes in at the 73rd-percentile, Davis proved himself a blah runner who produced a 34th-percentile BAE Rating last season while averaging only 3.64 yards per carry.
Badie never impressed as a ballcarrier at Missouri. His CES maxed out at the 56.1 mark he posted as a senior (which is calculated relative to all college running backs, not relative to NFL prospects, so he was average in the context of the amateurs in college football). Any value he provides will mostly be in the passing game.
Person never separated himself in the NC State running back room. He also never produced efficiently on the carries he did earn. Person’s career-best BAE Rating was just 93.0-percent. He also posted negative RSRs in three out of his four seasons.
So Really, Now What?
If everyone is healthy, I’d imagine the main contributors in this backfield in 2022 are Dobbins, Edwards, and Badie, in that order. Recent reports regarding the recoveries of both Dobbins and Edwards have not been encouraging. However, it remains to be seen when they will be able to return to the practice field let alone to actual game action.
Even if those guys were full-go right now, I’d probably not be super enthused about their potential in this offense. Dobbins likely is the clear RB1. He’s well-suited to taking advantage of the wide running lanes created by this offensive line. The threat of Jackson’s legs will also help create those running lanes. Dobbins is one of the most efficient runners in the league. However, his fantasy upside is likely capped by a lack of receiving opportunity. Running backs in Baltimore have been targeted at some of the lowest rates in the league since Jackson was drafted. Despite a top-12 route participation rate in 2020, Dobbins was targeted on a per-route basis (adjusted for the types of routes he was running) at the No. 5-lowest rate among all backs in the last six years.
Dobbins likely will provide RB2-level fantasy utility if he’s fully healthy by Week 1. However, if he and Edwards aren’t good to go, 2022 is going to be another lost year for this backfield. Dart throws on Badie make sense given the questionable availability of his teammates. You could probably even justify pinching your nose and drafting Davis. Sans Dobbins and Edwards, I’d be surprised if any back in this offense ends up as a guy you want to start regularly in fantasy.