Ravens roster analysis: Running backs

Ravens roster analysis: Running backs
February 19, 2013, 7:15 pm
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The Ravens are rightfully basking in their Super Bowl victory, but behind the scenes, work on the 2013 season has already begun. The personnel staff has already spent countless hours scouting college players and is at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis this week.

General manager Ozzie Newsome and his staff also must deal with free agency, the salary cap, and the enormous issue of Joe Flacco's contract status. Newsome made clear at the 'State of the Ravens' news conference after the season that the Ravens do not expect to restructure a lot of contracts as they did after the previous Super Bowl title. Translation: There is likely to be significant roster upheaval this offseason.
 
We’re taking a look at each Ravens position group to see who is likely to come back, who is likely to be gone, and what the ramifications are.

You can find more on the terminology (unrestricted vs. restricted free agents, etc.) here. Note that for this analysis, we look only at players who were on the final 53-man roster and injured reserve.

We've already looked at the offensive line, the tight ends and wide receivers. Today: The running backs.

Unrestricted free agents: None
Restricted free agents: None
Exclusive-rights free agents:  Anthony Allen, Damien Berry, Bobby Rainey
Under contract: Vonta Leach, Bernard Pierce, Ray Rice

With Ray Rice signing a long-term contract last summer, and Bernard Pierce just finishing a very promising rookie season, it appears that, barring injury, the Ravens should have an outstanding running back tandem for the next few years.

The biggest question facing this group is whether their Pro Bowl lead blocker, Vonta Leach, will return. Leach, 31, is entering the final year of a three-year deal he signed in 2011. He has a cap figure of about $4.3 million. As with Anquan Boldin, the question is twofold: Can the Ravens afford to keep Leach? Can they afford not to? Leach's contributions don't show up much on the stat sheet -- he had just nine carries for 32 yards this season, along with 21 catches for 143 yards. But there's no doubt that on many of the big runs by Rice and Pierce, Leach showed the way with a bruising block.

But based on Newsome's comments, it seems more likely the Ravens would release Leach than restructure his deal. How that would affect the Ravens running game would be a huge question.
 
Rice is coming off his fourth straight 1,000-yard season, and although his numbers dropped somewhat from last season (he had 318 total touches in 2012, 367 in 2011), the emergence of Pierce helped keep Rice fresh later in games and in the season. And as he showed on the 'Hey Diddle Diddle' fourth-and-29 play, good things usually happen with the ball in his hands.

Pierce was slowed in training camp but quickly emerged as the Ravens' No. 2 back and finished with 108 carries for 532 yards. He showed speed and strength and a no-nonsense, north-south approach.

The Ravens' running game is in good hands with those two.

Allen is likely to return as well after playing a major role on special teams. Jacoby Jones frequently credited Allen, an up back on the kick return unit, with springing him through the holes en route to his kick return touchdowns. Allen played briefly as a running back, with 16 carries for 61 yards, but his special teams work should help him hold down a roster spot next season.

Berry and Rainey both figure to enter camp on the roster bubble. Berry spent all of 2011 on the practice squad and then missed this season after being put on injured reserve at the end of training camp. Rainey had a tumultuous rookie year. He made the team as an undrafted rookie, then was cut in favor of Allen on the day of the season-opener. Rainey was signed back to the practice squad two days later, and was later promoted to the active roster, though he saw no action before going on season-ending injured reserve in November.

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