ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio: Ravens Should Draft RB In Early Rounds Of 2020 NFL Draft

Longtime ESPN NFL reporter Sal Paolantonio says the Ravens’ top priority in the 2020 NFL Draft should be beefing up their depth at running back in order to build on their biggest strength and address a playoff pitfall.

Paolantonio believes the biggest reason why the Ravens struggled during their 28-12 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the divisional round of the playoffs was that starting running back Mark Ingram was not 100 percent healthy. Ingram, who suffered a calf injury in Cleveland Dec. 22, rushed for 22 yards on six carries against the Titans.

Paolantonio thinks the Ravens must improve their depth at running back behind Ingram. Gus Edwards and Justice Hill are currently the team’s Nos. 2 and 3 backs behind Ingram.

“I think the most important thing is the team needs depth at the running back position,” Paolantonio said on Glenn Clark Radio April 14. “That’s the No. 1 thing they need offensively. They need to take the pressure off of Lamar Jackson as a runner. He’s got to develop into a great passer. I mean, the numbers last year were unbelievable, but he’s going to be OK for a while as a passer if you take the pressure off of him as a runner. If he has that option to give it to a running back that’s reliable for all 16 games and into the playoffs, if you take pressure off of him as a runner, this offense will be [indefensible].”

Baltimore put together a historic rushing attack in 2019, posting 3,296 yards on 596 attempts. Jackson led the way with 1,206 yards, the best-ever mark for a quarterback in league history. Ingram, a 5-foot-9, 215-pound power back, served as the perfect complement to Jackson’s speed, running for 1,018 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Ravens scored a league-best 33.2 points per game.

Paolantonio is convinced that if Ingram had been healthy, the Ravens would have hosted the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC championship game. Baltimore fell behind the Titans 14-0 early, failed to convert two crucial fourth-and-1 plays and got out of its usual run-first game plan. Jackson was responsible for 508 yards of offense but threw 59 times.

“If Mark Ingram is 100 percent healthy, the approach of that offense, the results and production of that offense would’ve been much, much different, and that would’ve changed the way the Titans probably would’ve had to play offense on the other side of the ball because they would’ve been playing from behind,” Paolantonio said. “I think that and the fourth-down errors by the head coach are the two major reasons why you lost the game.”

The Ravens’ top needs are generally seen as inside linebacker, wide receiver, interior offensive line and edge rusher. Baltimore has just three inside linebackers on the roster in L.J. Fort, Otaro Alaka and Chris Board. The Ravens could use a big-bodied receiver to complement speedster Marquise Brown, and it’s unclear whether Miles Boykin will be that player. Longtime right guard Marshal Yanda retired in March, leaving a massive hole at that position. And despite outside linebacker Matthew Judon being franchise tagged, Baltimore could still use some pass rush help.

So why target a running back early in the draft despite the league-wide trend to shy away from running backs during the early rounds? Because running the football is the Ravens’ identity, according to Paolantonio.

“If you know that’s the approach of your offense, you have to make it the strength of what you do in the draft, and I would be blown away if they didn’t take a running back early in this draft,” Paolantonio said. “I’m not saying it has to be in the first round, but if a first-round talent that you think fits what you do is there, you’ve got to strengthen, in my view, every part of the offense depth-wise: offensive line, running back, tight end, wide receiver.”

What running backs could the Ravens target with one of their early picks? Baltimore is currently scheduled to pick three times in the first two rounds (Nos. 28, 55 and 60). Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins are among the top-rated running backs in this year’s draft.

The early-round back most similar to Ingram might be Taylor, the 5-foot-10, 226-pound dynamo who ran roughshod over the Big Ten from 2017-2019. He ran for 6,174 yards and 50 touchdowns during his three years in Madison, Wis., and ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“What you need is someone where Jackson could put the ball into the belly of the beast, in the teeth of a defensive line because he is quick enough to beat the linebackers and the edge rushers to the edge,” Paolantonio said. “… Ingram is so perfect because Ingram is tough, Ingram is great with the football, Ingram has speed in the open field, he’s shifty between the tackles. Listen, if you can find Mark Ingram III, because he is Mark Ingram II, that’s the guy you want.”

For more from Paolantonio, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Luke Jackson

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