Vonta Leach will undoubtedly help Ray Rice to run in 2011, might he also help him to walk after 2011?
Ravens fans may not be happy with the team’s moves thus far (or lack thereof) in free agency, but Ray Rice probably is. As teams across the league boast big splash signing after big splash signing, Ravens fans seem to anxiously await their team’s own foray into the headlines. Truth be told, they may have already it (or them).
It’s probably a safe bet that Ray Rice is madly excited about the Ravens free agency moves thus far. Not only did the Ravens retain Marshall Yanda (and will hopefully be able to deploy him at right guard), but they also added an Earthmover of a fullback behind whom Rice could run for days, toward glory, fame and ultimately riches too. The question then becomes, will those riches come as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, or does the Leach signing indicate (or even necessitate) that the Ravens are more prepared to “Show him the door” than to “Show him the money”?
The NFL has changed, it’s always changing, but the most recent and significant changes to the landscape may be attributable to the 2007 Giants. As the NFL ushered in its era of wide open passing offenses and as the Patriots rode that change to the precipice of an undefeated season, that Giants team not only derailed their effort, but quite possibly changed the face of football going forward.
Ever since that season, or specifically that game, NFL teams have overreached and overpaid in efforts to find defensive line talent, while at the same time minimizing their efforts to find and pay feature backs. In a salary cap era, it only makes sense that any opportunity one can find to minimize cost, and for that matter risks has to be investigated.
The Giants took the “thunder and lightning” approach to another level, getting outstanding production from 3 workmanlike backs. While not superstars, each did a variety of different things well. Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw and Derrick Ward not only complimented each other skills-wise; they also kept each other fresh and surely challenged and brought the best out in each other too. They also insured that an injury to any one of them wouldn’t derail the Giants’ hopes. Before long, tandems, trios and running backs by committee were everywhere in the copycat NFL.
Fast forward to 2010.
The Packers won the Super Bowl despite losing Ryan Grant for the entire season early on, and without ever really establishing anyone as a consistent threat in the backfield. Quintessential bell cows Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson had good seasons but their teams failed to make the playoffs. First round running backs Jahvid Best, CJ Spiller and Ryan Matthews all put in disappointing efforts for non-playoff teams, while the league’s 2 most productive rookie running backs were both undrafted in LaGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory. And to top it all off Arian Foster, an undrafted free agent from 2009, stepped out of the carnage of the Ben Tate injury to emerge not only as a viable alternative but also as the league’s best back in 2010.
And he did it behind Vonta Leach.
Foster isn’t Leach’s only success story either, in 2008 lightly regarded 3rd round pick Steve Slaton put together a 9 TD 1200+ yard campaign behind Leach too. At times he’s made legitimate runners of the likes of aging Ron Dayne and Ahman Green, Samkon Gado, Chris Brown and Ryan Moats. Say what you want about Foster’s talent after last season, but it seems all but clear that Leach has never likely fronted in the backfield for a talent as prolific as Ray Rice. And Rice should be happy to be running behind a blocker more interested in doing his own job than in taking Rice’s.
The only conceivable problem with the formula is that if we’ve identified running back as a position where talents can (or must) be found on the cheap, then why pay $11 million over 3 years to a fullback?
Regardless of how well Rice ultimately performs behind Leach, the Ravens will certainly have some opportunities at least to see how others look behind him too. How well those guys do in those opportunities may go a long way toward the decision facing the Ravens after this season with Rice and whether to pay him as the elite runner many are hoping he’ll be in and after the 2011 campaign, or to let him go, spend that money elsewhere and rest assured that whomever gets deployed behind Leach and the budding offensive line will be alright.
If so, enjoy Rice’s running this season, because his walking afterward could prove difficult to take, but inevitable nonetheless.