Justice Tells You What You Ought To Do
With the release of Kenneth Dixon, and cutdown day come and gone with no new waiver claims, the Ravens open 2019 with just three backs on the roster: Mark Ingram, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill.
There are not many positions in the NFL where someone can get drafted after the first couple of rounds, come in, and instantly be a difference maker in his first season. On rare occasions you’ll see a cornerback or offensive lineman do that. But if you were to pick the two spots that do it the most often, it would be the most heavily rotated spots in the NFL: defensive line and running back.
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What we had on our hands this preseason was a show put on by Justice Hill. Hill was not content to be labeled a passing-down back, even though he has a huge stake in that role with the release of Dixon. He showcased the traits of a true three-down back. On this run against the Packers, he showed patience:
He read the blocks, he made a decisive cut in the backfield to get past a misblocked defender, and he got to the outside in a hurry.
Hill also showed — perhaps even more importantly because of his frame — power. Check out this run against the Eagles:
Alex Singleton, the linebacker that Hill spun right past, did not make the Eagles roster. But that’s still an impressive display of tackle-breaking.
Hill was not the only Ravens player to have a good camp, nor was he the only rookie Ravens player to have a good camp. What he is, though, is a player that I think the NFL got a little too caught up in trying to find reasons to dislike. He’s small. So was Ray Rice. He lost carries in his senior season. It turns out Chuba Hubbard, the guy he was splitting time with, dropped 226 rushing yards and three touchdowns in Oklahoma State’s season-opening win.
My projection is that Hill will be used early. My suspicion is that the Ravens will soon see that they can’t keep him off the field.
Modern NFL offenses like the one Baltimore’s analytics staff should be helping to create are founded a lot deeper in game theory. One thing about game theory and the NFL that goes against a lot of what Baltimore did last season is a very simple philosophy: do what your opponent isn’t expecting.
Last season, the Ravens had a one-dimensional offense. This season, with Lamar Jackson’s growth as a passer and with added emphasis on wide receiver, they’re trying to keep the elements of what made last year’s run game dangerous, but also make it unpredictable. The problem with how the Ravens currently play out is that neither Ingram nor Edwards is the kind of back that can keep opponents guessing. You can put Nick Boyle on the field and run either a running play or a passing play. Just based on how little they targeted Edwards last season, he is a tell in and of himself that the Ravens will be attempting to run often. Obviously there will be plays where he doesn’t, but his presence dictates things.
While Ingram has made a nice career out of catching the ball in New Orleans, similarly, it says a lot about Ingram that the team decided they needed Alvin Kamara in the first place. Ingram has always had a receiving downs caddy in New Orleans, whether it was Kamara, Darren Sproles, or even Travaris Cadet. Ingram can play on passing downs, but even in the context it was clear that his team didn’t always want him there. The empirical stats are certainly good for Ingram as a receiver, and that sounds great. When you play in an offense as good as New Orleans’ and a playcaller as good as Sean Payton, you’re going to make hay on screens.
Hill is the kind of back that breaks tendencies. You’re not sure if he’s coming or going. To be sure, I expect some rocky moments from him this season. I don’t think he’s a great pass blocker. I think any back as small as Hill comes with some inherent added injury risk against NFL pounding. He’ll probably have some fumbles or drops, or other learning moments.
But the NFL is shifting in a direction that heavily favors a back like Justice Hill. The Ravens, who I think we can safely say are near the forefront of analytics in the NFL, are going to see first-hand just how much Hill can help them.
I think only injuries can prevent Hill from becoming a focal point of the Baltimore offense by the end of this season.
Rivers McCown is a writer and editor who has written for ESPN.com, Bleacher Report, USA Today, and Deadspin, among other places. He’s edited for Football Outsiders, Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and Pre-Snap Reads Quarterback Catalogue.