Much of the chatter about the Ravens this offseason centered around the defense, and with good reason: The Ravens signed free-agent defensive backs Tony Jefferson and Brandon Carr, re-signed defensive lineman Brandon Williams to a whopping $52.5 million contract and then selected defensive players with their first four picks in the NFL Draft.
But the one offensive acquisition the team made early in free agency amid all that focus on the defense -- running back Danny Woodhead -- could prove to be the Ravens' most important move of the year.
Woodhead figures to have a significant role in the Ravens' offense given their reliance on running backs in the short-passing game and the departure of fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
And Woodhead's role appears to be growing with each injury that alters the Ravens' offensive depth chart. By Aug. 1, the Ravens had already lost tight ends Dennis Pitta (hip) and Crockett Gillmore (knee) and running back Kenneth Dixon (knee) to likely season-ending injuries. They had also lost tight end Darren Waller to a year-long suspension because of a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.
Woodhead, 32, is coming off an ACL injury himself that limited him to two games last season, and he missed 13 games in 2014 with an ankle injury. His age and health history bring valid questions, but he has shown no signs of lingering medical issues since joining the Ravens.
What he has shown is elusiveness, quickness, toughness and very reliable hands.
"The kid is a little ball of muscle," Pro Bowl guard Marshal Yanda said.
Woodhead, all 5-foot-9, 200 pounds of him, has never been a bell-cow runner; he has averaged about five carries a game during his career. But the former Chadron State star, who has dismissed doubters throughout his career, excels at pass protection and as a receiver, making him the Ravens' likely backfield choice on third down and in passing situations.
"I think whatever role I end up getting, I have to go out there and play well in order to have a role," Woodhead said. "Whatever the coaches ask me to do, I'll be ready for."
The Ravens signed Woodhead to a three-year, $8.8 million deal on the opening day of free agency, the same day they learned Dixon would be facing a four-game suspension. (General manager Ozzie Newsome said the two events were not related.) It seemed mildly surprising at the time, given the Ravens' stated need to add a complementary receiver, the loss of starting right tackle Rick Wagner to free agency and the return of Terrance West, Dixon, Buck Allen and Lorenzo Taliaferro in the backfield.
But Woodhead came at a fraction of the cost of Juszczyk's new deal (four years, $21 million) in San Francisco, and he brought a skill set the Ravens were looking for.
"He is a very versatile running back," head coach John Harbaugh said. "He can carry the ball, but he is also a big part of the passing game, both in protection ... [and] the route running."
Quarterback Joe Flacco said Woodhead is the Ravens' best receiving back since Ray Rice.
"They just have a very good feel for when they're open and how to get open, how to sit in holes, how to find my eyes, and you can already see that," Flacco said after a June minicamp workout. "You can see he has a really good feel for those kinds of things. ... That gives a lot to your offense, for sure."
Woodhead's career numbers bear that out. In his last fully healthy season, in 2015, Woodhead had 80 catches for 755 yards and six touchdowns for the San Diego Chargers. He had 76 catches for 605 yards in 2013. (Rice, incidentally, set a Ravens franchise record for receptions by a running back with 78 in 2009.)
That success, Woodhead said, comes from developing rapport with his quarterback, and he's played with a couple of outstanding ones in Tom Brady in New England (2010-2012) and Philip Rivers in San Diego (2013-2016).
"I think you have to have some sort of chemistry with a quarterback," Woodhead said. "Everywhere I have been, that has been really important to get on the same page, whether we are running routes and I'm like, ‘Hey Joe, you like this? If you don't, let me know, because I will change it.'
"The most important thing is to do what he wants, because if I am going to get the ball or a receiver is going to get the ball, it is because we are doing it correctly how he sees it."
Through OTAs and into training camp, Woodhead proved to be a popular target for the quarterbacks and a matchup problem for the Ravens' defense -- precisely what they are hoping he will be during the regular season.
That's especially true given the Ravens' propensity to look to its running backs. Whether by design or as a check-down option, Juszczyk was fourth on the team with 37 catches for 266 yards last year, and the Ravens are hoping Woodhead's quickness and elusiveness can help improve an offense that ranked 24th in the league in third-down efficiency.
Harbaugh said Woodhead gives the Ravens "a great matchup against linebackers and even against safeties in critical situations to help us move the chains."
Woodhead also knows how to find the end zone, which has been another issue for the Ravens. Woodhead has 32 career touchdowns -- 15 rushing and 17 receiving. Last year, the Ravens' offense totaled 30 touchdowns, sixth-fewest in the league.
In short, the Ravens might have found a critical spark for an offense sorely in need of one.
"He has a knack for the football scheme, and he seems like a guy who is going to help us win, as far as with the matchups he creates," Yanda said. "You can just tell that he is a pro, and he takes his job seriously. ... He is a detail guy. I like what I see from him, and I think he is going to do great things for us."
Issue 236: August 2017