The Baltimore Ravens gave the franchise tag to their top offensive player, running back Ray Rice.
With the tag, Rice is set to make just over $7 million this year, but it’s thought the designation has been given him in lieu of a deal.
If he doesn’t get a long-term contract from the Ravens this year, there is a slim possibility Rice holds out, but even if the two sides agree to a new deal, the Ravens would be well-served to find a solid backup for Rice.
If last season taught us anything, it’s that even the most invincible-seeming running backs can be struck down with injury. Jamaal Charles, Adrian Peterson, Fred Jackson and Rashard Mendenhall were among the backs who suffered season-ending injuries.
For a team that relies so heavily on Rice, the Ravens desperately need to find a solid backup for him, should he get injured or hold out this year, as well as to provide a change-of-pace so that Rice isn’t worn down by too many carries.
Anthony Allen is Rice’s current backup.
While Allen has some upside, especially in short-yardage situations, his lack of solid receiving skills and play-making speed don’t make him the ideal replacement backup for Rice, though he could be useful in certain specific situations.
One things the Ravens could try to do is what the Chicago Bears did last week, signing higher-profile free agent Michael Bush to back up—and work alongside—their leading rusher, Matt Forte.
Now, the Ravens don’t have the most spectacular salary cap situation, so certain, more pricey free agent backs won’t be on their radar, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t some veteran talent out there that could provide to be the ideal No. 2 for Rice.
Former Indianapolis Colt Joseph Addai, recent Redskin Tim Hightower or even Jackie Battle, most recently of the Kansas City Chiefs, could provide depth as well as veteran experience.
They could also potentially inquire about a trade for the San Francisco 49ers‘ Anthony Dixon, whose role on the team is likely nullified with the addition of Brandon Jacobs.
But if it’s about speed and youth, then the draft will bear the most fruit for the Ravens.
If Baltimore could find themselves the next Rice, the next player who can dominate both in the run and pass game, and put up the kind of elite-level yards Rice has managed in his career, then that’s fabulous.
But it’s also foolhardy to believe a player like Rice can be found in any given year—his level of talent is hardly a dime-a-dozen.
Cincinnati‘s Isaiah Pead is one name that has been knocked around in connection with the Ravens. He’d be good, at least on paper, to spell Rice, with his elusiveness and speed, along with his good hands, but his pass blocking isn’t very strong and his smaller stature could also be an issue.
That being said, Pead does have enough going for him that he could split time as Rice’s No. 2 with Allen. Same goes for Florida’s Chris Rainey, who is another fast, but undersized back. Again, his durability is an issue, but considering he’d be a change of pace for Rice, that shouldn’t be a concern.
However, if Baltimore is looking more toward someone who is both fast and durable, and has good hands—if not prototypical size—then Oregon’s LaMichael James might be the perfect fit.
But if a smaller, faster back isn’t what the Ravens are looking for, some feature-type prospects this year could make a good mid-round pickup.
Boise State’s Doug Martin isn’t as fast as the change-of-pace players I detailed above, and he needs work in pass protection, but has all the hallmarks of a talented, straightforward running back.
Utah State’s Robert Turbin could be another excellent option for the Ravens. He has solid speed and size, along with great pass-catching abilities, although durability is an issue for him, it shouldn’t really come up as long as he’s backing up and spelling Rice.
While no one wants to consider the prospect of Rice becoming injured or holding out, the Ravens do need to have a plan in place should one of these things happen.
Clearly, it will be hard to find someone who matches Rice’s abilities precisely, but as long as they bring on someone who is effective and worth developing, the Ravens won’t be caught unprepared.
Planning is key.
This year finding a backup for Rice should be a high priority in Baltimore.