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Ravens Insider: Mike Preston: Without Gus Edwards, Ravens running game is full of questions | COMMENTARY


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“The Bus” might be departing from Baltimore soon.

The Ravens declined to extend the current contracts of running back Gus Edwards, right guard Kevin Zeitler, safety Geno Stone and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin by 4 p.m. Monday, allowing all to become free agents.

The move is not surprising. The signing of quarterback Lamar Jackson to a five-year, $260 million contract in May and the five-year, $100 million extension for middle linebacker Roquan Smith in January were always going to have significant consequences in shaping future rosters.

But without Edwards, who led all Ravens running backs in rushing last season with 810 yards and 13 touchdowns on 198 carries, Baltimore doesn’t have a featured halfback. Maybe the ground game will be running back by committee, with Jackson being the focus.

Things, though, are a little concerning.

No one can question Jackson’s ability as a runner. He has rushed for 5,258 yards in six seasons and has that Houdini effect — “now you see me, now you don’t” — especially in the open field with those vintage jump cuts. The offense is and will always be built around him, especially with the run-pass option passing plays.

But two things were noticeable about Jackson last season on his way to a second Most Valuable Player Award. He has lost some acceleration and speed through the years, which is understandable for a running quarterback, and he prefers to throw than run, especially in coordinator Todd Monken’s balanced offense.

You can’t blame Jackson. He wants to secure another lucrative long-term contract after his current one and extend his playing career into his 30s. Running the football off the edge can be hazardous to one’s health.

But it also can present big problems. If Jackson isn’t controlling the game with his feet, he is only a slightly better-than-average thrower. He made progress this season under Monken, but let’s not get too carried away.

Let’s roll the tape from the AFC championship game, a 17-10 loss to the Chiefs in Baltimore. Kansas City stacked the line of scrimmage and took away the run, and the Ravens obliged because they panicked after falling behind early.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson breaks from the pocket for a gain against the Houston Texans in the fourth quarter. (Jerry Jackson/Staff photo)
The Ravens’ running game has always evolved around quarterback Lamar Jackson, but he still needs a lead running back to rely on. (Jerry Jackson/Staff)

The Chiefs were also more disciplined rushing Jackson. They didn’t allow him to roll outside the pocket often, and he completed 20 of 37 passes for 272 yards. Edwards and fellow running back Justice Hill had only a combined six carries for 23 yards.

More importantly, Jackson had only eight for 56 yards. He had receivers open in the middle of the field several times but failed to find them. The point here is that when Jackson isn’t involved as a runner, the offense drags because he is still trying to evolve as a thrower.

His running ability is the missing ingredient, and now the Ravens likely won’t have Edwards. They don’t have a go-to running back, not even a fake go-to runner. Hill, primarily used as a backup, rushed for 387 yards with three touchdowns on 84 carries last season, but he isn’t a No. 1 running back.

Keaton Mitchell is a better option. He had 396 yards on 47 attempts as a rookie in 2023 and his speed gave the Ravens big-play potential off the perimeter, but he tore his ACL in Week 15, so he might not be a reliable option for a while.

Who else is there? J.K. Dobbins? The former second-round draft pick will be a free agent but suffered a torn ACL in 2021, missed a chunk of the 2022 season recovering from that and another cleanup procedure, and then tore his Achilles tendon in the 2023 season opener against the Texans and missed the season. The Ravens could sign him at the right price, but it would be hard to project him as the starter.

Dalvin Cook? He showed some flashes in mop-up duty versus Houston in the postseason but is an average runner at best at this point in his career. The Ravens could draft a running back in April, especially after they hit with Mitchell, an undrafted free agent out of East Carolina.

But they don’t have a proven, legitimate starter. Edwards wasn’t sensational, but he was safe. He was a closer, the type of runner who could wear down and finish off teams in the second half, especially inside the red zone.

The Ravens might re-sign him, but that wouldn’t make a lot of sense because he will already count $1.8 million against the salary cap. In addition to Edwards, the Ravens might not get Zeitler back on an offensive line that could also be without starting left guard John Simpson, who is also a free agent. So, the running game is back to ground zero.

Oh well. At least the Ravens still have Jackson. He is the top threat in the running game, but as he evolves, the Ravens don’t have anyone to complement him.

Not yet anyway.

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