When healthy, J.K. Dobbins is as good as anybody at cutting through a sliver of daylight and making more progress than anyone expects.
With his latest move, however, the 24-year-old is dashing toward a running lane that even he might not be agile enough to slip through.
Entering his fourth year as a pro, Dobbins already knows well the rocky path of running backs in the NFL. After an electric rookie season when he helped fuel the league’s most prolific rushing attack and averaged 6 yards per carry, his left knee was obliterated by an opposing player’s helmet in a 2021 preseason game he thought he wasn’t going to play.
Dobbins has labored to make his way back over the last two years, knowing full well that nothing is promised, that every down carries the potential to stop him in his tracks.
After navigating a tumultuous offseason in which they signed their franchise quarterback and upgraded their receiving room, the Ravens might have figured they were due for a placid three-day session of installing coordinator Todd Monken’s offense. But Dobbins wants to secure his future, too, and his absence was conspicuous in camp, and he declined to comment to WJZ in an interview on Thursday about his reported minor soft tissue injury.
“You saw with Lamar [Jackson],” he told WJZ. “It’s never just roses and daisies, it can be hard at times. It’s business, though.”
It’s understandable why Dobbins, who has put life and limb on the line for Baltimore, would be looking for a new deal that keeps him under contract for the next few seasons. But he’s going to face a tough time moving the sticks.
A whale-sized chip on the shoulder is part of what has made Dobbins great in the past. He rushed for 2,000 yards in his final college campaign only to be drafted in the second round. At the tail end of last season when he showed flashes of his former self, he told reporters that he wanted to put the Ravens on his back.
“I want to carry the load,” he said in January. “My teammates look at me and be like, ‘Alright, he’s ready. Let’s ride him.’ That’s how I always think since I was in Pee Wee football, and I’m never going to change.”
What’s changed, however, is that in Pee Wee, a running back can carry a team, while in the NFL, there are few positions with greater churn. Dobbins seems to grate against that, too: He’s reportedly close to Saquon Barkley, who is in an ongoing negotiation with the Giants. Dalvin Cook, the four-time Pro Bowler who is represented by Dobbins’ agency, was just released by the Vikings last week for salary cap reasons; so was the Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott. There are those in the NFL who feel that the franchise tenders for running backs like Barkley, Josh Jacobs helps cap the market for owners.
But while that might make Dobbins feel compelled to take a stand for himself and for running backs everywhere, this environment makes for a tough leverage play. The Ravens are feeling salary cap pressure themselves after signing Jackson to his record deal and adding receivers. They might still be looking to spend for edge rushers before training camp begins.
Even before Dobbins went on TV on Thursday afternoon, his absence from the field had a lukewarm reception from his coaches. Coach John Harbaugh had gushed two days ago about Dobbins’ “dynamic potential” in Monken’s offense, but by minicamp’s end, he didn’t mask his disappointment: “I expected J.K. to practice, and it just wasn’t in the cards, apparently.”
Monken could use a back like Dobbins this fall: He’s a versatile, elusive runner with receiving upside. The first-year offensive coordinator didn’t push back on the idea that Dobbins is injured, but Monken also recounted a conversation that sounded very little like what a coach would say to a player who couldn’t take the practice field.
“Give me something. Run a swing route. I don’t care,” Monken recalled saying. “Just jog down the field. Do something. Give me something to get excited about.”
There is friction between Dobbins and the Ravens that goes back: The injury itself, a knee scope for scar tissue in the middle of last season, and then the way the season ended. Of all the disgruntled parties after Tyler Huntley’s fourth-quarter fumble that gave the edge to the Cincinnati Bengals, Dobbins was the most unequivocal: “He should never have been in that situation. I believe I would have put it in the end zone, again.”
But how do the Ravens squeeze out a long-term deal for a running back who has just one full season under his belt in 2020? And as Dobbins is pointing out, if they don’t like their running back options with Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, there’s more than a few talented backs looking for work right now. Even if the Ravens were to trade him elsewhere, the entire NFL doesn’t seem to be spending big on backs.
It’s a hard draw for Dobbins, who told WJZ that he wants to finish his career as a Raven.
“I love the city, I love the people, it feels like family,” he said. “It feels like my second home. I hope that happens.”
With the route he’s chosen, it’s hard to see how he gets this one to the end zone anytime soon.