Five months before J.K. Dobbins had his coaches at mandatory minicamp wondering what, exactly, he was doing, the Ravens running back was asking the same kind of questions.
In a season-ending playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Dobbins had rushed for 62 yards on just 13 carries, including none near the goal line. Afterward, in a quickly emptying Paycor Stadium locker room, he vented about his usage: Why wasn’t he doing more?
“I should be the guy,” Dobbins said. “I’m tired of holding that back. I’m tired of that. ... I’m tired of holding that back. Let’s go win the game. I’m tired of that.”
And: “I’m a guy who feels like if I’m on the field all the time, I can help this team win, and I wasn’t. It’s the playoffs. Why am I not out there?”
And: “I’m a playmaker. I’m a guy that my teammates feed off me when I’m on the field. I should be out there all the time.”
Now it’s his absence that’s making headlines. Dobbins, who’s in the final year of his rookie contract, reported to minicamp last week but did not practice, as he was expected to. “It just wasn’t in the cards, apparently,” coach John Harbaugh said Thursday.
Later that day, in an appearance on WJZ-TV, Dobbins declined to say whether he was injured, as had been reported. But he acknowledged that the business side of football is “very hard,” adding: “It’s never just roses and daisies.”
In The Summer of Disgruntled Running Backs, Dobbins’ apparent hold-in has not registered leaguewide as more than a blip. He was not as productive last year as the Las Vegas Raiders’ Josh Jacobs, nor does he have the pedigree of the New York Giants’ Saquon Barkley, nor has he been as durable as the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Pollard, all standout running backs seeking long-term deals.
What distinguishes Dobbins’ contract standoff with Ravens officials is the season that has prompted this reckoning. His 2022 campaign started as a compelling argument for the relative interchangeability of running backs. It ended with a compelling argument for the value of elite talent at the position.
The dividing line in Dobbins’ season came in Week 14, when he returned from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Over his four appearances before the cleanup procedure, Dobbins averaged 3.5 yards per carry and had double-digit carries just once. After the surgery, he averaged 6.6 yards per carry and 14 attempts per game over four regular-season games and the Ravens’ wild-card-round loss.
“It was very encouraging,” Dobbins said of his recovery. “I showed people the scope was an amazing thing to do.”
It also laid bare the risks of investing in a running back like Dobbins. A second-round pick in 2020, the former Ohio State star led all NFL running backs in yards per carry as a rookie, only to miss the 2021 season after tearing the ACL, LCL and meniscus in his left knee, along with his hamstring, in a preseason game.
Dobbins didn’t appear in a game last season until late September. When he finally returned, he wasn’t the same. He looked hobbled, tentative, less explosive. After finishing with 0.35 expected points added per carry in 2020 — a stratospheric rate of efficiency usually reserved for All-Pro quarterbacks — Dobbins averaged 0.00 EPA per rush in his first stretch of games last season, according to TruMedia. (EPA accounts for situational factors such as down, distance and field position.) The Ravens’ running game was generally worse off whenever he was involved, and sometimes significantly so.
When Dobbins returned again in Week 14, his long speed was still missing. But that became apparent only because of how good everything else looked. On an offense that had lost quarterback Lamar Jackson and wide receiver Rashod Bateman to season-ending injuries, and would soon lose wide receiver Devin Duvernay to another, Dobbins became an unlikely pillar. More often than not, he was the team’s only hope of moving the ball.
Few running backs down the stretch were better. From Week 14 through the wild-card round, Dobbins ranked sixth among qualifying running backs in success rate on carries (45.6%) and sixth in first downs per rush (28.1%). He ranked fourth in EPA per carry (0.19). He ranked first in yards before contact per carry (3.49, far ahead of runner-up Aaron Jones’ 2.61) and seventh in yards after contact per carry, too (3.47).
In Week 14 and Week 15, Dobbins had a combined 28 carries for 245 yards (8.8 per carry) despite facing stacked boxes (eight-plus defenders) on over two-thirds of his attempts. According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, he rushed for 109 more yards than expected over that offensively challenged two-game stretch, a 16-14 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers and 13-3 loss to the Cleveland Browns.
“I know J.K.’s a beast,” defensive lineman Calais Campbell said after the victory in Pittsburgh. “Did I expect what he did today? I really can’t sit here and lie to you. I did not expect it like that.”
Dobbins’ late-season tear was all the more surprising because the run defenses he faced knew, by and large, who would get the ball. When Jackson was healthy, opponents had to account for him as a run threat before every snap. When Tyler Huntley took over, the Ravens’ reliance on their read-option attack waned. There was less mystery at the mesh point, and far less danger when Huntley took off.
Still, Dobbins’ mere presence could mean the difference between a good play and a bad play. In the Ravens’ 97 post-scope plays with Dobbins on the field, they averaged 6 yards and a 0.05 EPA, according to TruMedia — about as efficient as the San Francisco 49ers, who finished fifth last season in EPA per play. In the 201 post-scope plays with Dobbins off the field, the Ravens averaged 4.9 yards and minus-0.23 EPA — worse than even the Houston Texans, dead last in the NFL in EPA per play (minus-0.17).
On-off splits can be noisy, especially in small samples. But Dobbins’ added margin of 0.28 EPA per play is at least notable. Among the NFL’s 20 most prolific running backs last season, only the 49ers’ Christian McCaffrey had a more pronounced influence on an offense: 0.18 EPA per play when he was on the field, minus-0.17 EPA per play when he wasn’t.
Unlike McCaffrey, Dobbins’ greatest value in 2022 came not in the passing game, where he was still limited as a blocker and receiver, but on the ground. He had a transformative effect on offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s complex rushing attack, finding holes behind a much-improved line in ways that Gus Edwards, Kenyan Drake and Justice Hill could not.
The Ravens’ rate of explosive runs (at least 12 yards) with Dobbins on the field after he returned was 16.9%, according to TruMedia, which would’ve been by far the league’s best rate. With him off the field? Just 6.4%, which would’ve ranked 28th.
Through Dobbins’ reemergence, the Ravens were careful about his workload. He never rushed more than 17 times in a game last season. Ahead of the playoff game in Cincinnati, he told reporters that he felt “really good” but not yet at full strength: “Probably as close to 100% as I’ve been in a long time.”
With Dobbins skipping the Ravens’ voluntary organized team activities this offseason, last week’s minicamp was supposed to offer a reintroduction to a fully healthy Dobbins. But almost two years since his 2021 injury, and almost a half-year since his attention-grabbing postgame comments, he was absent as much of the Ravens’ projected starting offense practiced together for the first time under new coordinator Todd Monken.
“Would we love him to be out here?” Monken said last Wednesday. “Of course. Would we love him to be able to go through practice and be able to see that? As I told him today, I’m excited. ‘Give me something. Run a swing route. I don’t care. Just jog down the field. Do something. Give me something to get excited about.’ It’s what we do. …
“Obviously, he’s not ready to go. But we’re excited, and I know he’ll be ready when he’s out there. But we certainly are better with him out there.”
Compliments won’t change the cloudy forecast for Dobbins’ future in Baltimore. General manager Eric DeCosta can appreciate his impact. He can also see running backs as depreciating assets. Over Dobbins’ three seasons, he has gone from sensational one year to sidelined the next, from a drag on the Ravens’ offense in October to their main power source in December. How do you put a dollar figure on that?