As training camp begins, the Baltimore Ravens’ offense is flooded with strange situations at their skill positions, muddying the fantasy terrain.
Injuries at wide receiver and tight end have made trusting Baltimore talents somewhat risky as drafts approach, and the team’s running back stable did not exactly clear up after the front office followed through on a predictable decision to jettison Trent Richardson.
But the team’s ball-carrying dynamic may be just as confusing as its pass-catching corps, even though injuries have yet to make a big impact here. However, a lack of clarity leaves the door ajar for the back with the highest ceiling on the roster, rookie fourth-rounder Kenneth Dixon — a versatile production machine while at Louisiana Tech.
Yes, as of now Justin Forsett remains the Ravens’ starting running back. But his grasp on that position shouldn’t be viewed as firm. The journeyman-turned-starter’s recent renaissance should be applauded, but he’s going to turn 31 this season and only has one year of strong evidence he’s a No. 1 back.
Baltimore drafted Dixon on Day 3, and he profiles as a better dynasty draftee than a surefire 2016 contributor. But the Ravens’ incumbents do not present a particularly treacherous moat to cross en route to substantial playing time.
At a position that warrants constant monitoring and plenty of depth due to its volatility, Dixon should be scooped up as a stash this month.
While some rookies should be viewed as developmental players — Sammie Coates behind a slew of veteran receivers last year or Jerick McKinnon two seasons ago — and be viewed as hands-off in drafts, Dixon doesn’t come with that warning label despite circumstances that may suggest it.
Neither Forsett nor 2015 fourth-rounder Buck Allen was particularly effective on the ground last season. Dixon doesn’t have the skill set to be regarded as an immediate starter, going in the fourth round and all, but his production in college and the Ravens’ lack of an obvious RB1 creates a window — even if it’s not open too wide right now.
Dixon churned out four straight seasons with 1,000-plus yards from scrimmage with Louisiana Tech and concluded his career as the second-most prolific touchdown scorer in Division I-FBS history with 87 touchdowns. He averaged at least 5.1 yards per carry in each season, twice exceeding 6.0 per rush on at least 151 attempts in those seasons, and once amassed a stretch of 38 straight games with at least one touchdown. He also surpassed 800 receiving yards over the past two seasons combined and caught 13 TD passes, often lining up in the slot.
Now, we’re not talking high-level competition, but Dixon’s offensive line was subject to the same recruiting realities the Conference USA defenses were. So, a lack of elite opposition shouldn’t be held against him too much.
Dixon comes to Baltimore with proven ability on the ground and through the air, and while not being a classic speed back, he’s has shown a knack for finding creases quickly and will work well in a one-cut scheme. He’s not an obvious No. 1 running back off the bat, with rookies often struggling to work as functional pass-protectors, and likely won’t be a big factor early in the season thanks to the presences of Forsett and Allen. But neither being a commanding presence will keep Dixon in the mix for a key role.
Forsett’s season concluded after 10 games last season; the second-year starter became one of many Ravens who failed to finish the season. A broken arm sidelined him in November, doing so after Forsett rushed for 641 yards and averaged 4.2 per tote following a season that featured the ex-afterthought averaging 5.4 per carry. Allen stepped in and started six games but managed 3.8 per handoff.
Although the Ravens did lose Kelechi Osemele in free agency, they still have probably the league’s best guard in Marshal Yanda and some other overlooked blockers in an era where offensive line continuity and development has cratered.
Dixon will also potentially come cheaper, costing no more than a late-round pick in standard leagues, after suffering a sprained MCL during the Ravens’ first week of camp. This shouldn’t sideline him for too long, but it will allow Forsett and Allen more time to appear firmly as the Nos. 1-2 backs on numerous depth charts fantasy-leaguers will consult before their respective drafts. This will make obtaining him easier.
Of the first-year running backs not named Ezekiel Elliott, Dixon finds himself in a decent situation for carries.
If the all-around back proves himself in practice or during preseason, he’ll begin to siphon work from Forsett. That may not happen too quickly for Devontae Booker (Broncos), Tyler Ervin (Texans), or even Derrick Henry — all of whom were drafted ahead of Dixon.
At a position where things get ugly quick, it’s important to find medium- to high-upside players who aren’t playing on teams flush with imposing depth charts. Dixon meets this criteria and should be monitored after the RB2s go off the board.