As the Ravens’ health improves, a list crunch looms on offense

Over the first month of their season, the Ravens had a 53-man list and a team that never really needed that many spots.

It wasn’t like general manager Eric DeCosta was forgetting anyone. The Ravens just happened to go into most weeks without a complete squad. Salary cap considerations, practice squad transactions and injuries kept the team’s active list around 50 players long over the season’s first half.

That made certain decisions on game day easy. With wide receivers Rashod Bateman and Miles Boykin starting the season on injured save, the Ravens had only five wide receivers obtainable for their first four games — and all five played all four games.

But now, as the team’s health improves, as roles solidify and as pressure builds, the Ravens are in the middle of something of a list crunch, especially on offense. On Tuesday, the team cut running back Le’Veon Bell just five days after he’d set a season high for snaps. Coach John Harbaugh on Wednesday called his release a “numbers thing.” It probably won’t be the Ravens’ last such list move.

“We have some guys coming back, so numbers-wise … there’s nothing clear-cut about any decision at all,” Harbaugh said. “He can nevertheless play. We’ll just see where we’re at going forward. Things can turn nevertheless, one way or another.”

As the Ravens gear up for a second-half run, here’s a look at how all their moving parts could fit together.

Running back

Latavius Murray, who started three straight games after taking over for Ty’Son Williams in Week 4, returned to practice Wednesday for the first time since he sprained his ankle in a Week 6 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.

If he’s obtainable for Sunday’s game against the Chicago produces, the Ravens can again pair Murray with Devonta Freeman in their backfield. Freeman has been the more effective runner this season, averaging 5.2 yards per carry, but the 6-foot-3 Murray is a bigger target as a receiver and has long been considered one of the NFL’s better pass-blocking running backs.

If Murray, who was limited in practice Wednesday, is held out until the Ravens’ Week 12 game against the Cleveland Browns, their rotation at the position becomes less certain. The team could promote practice squad running back Nate McCrary, who impressed in the preseason but hasn’t made his NFL debut. It could also call once more on Williams, who started the Ravens’ first three games but didn’t play a break in Thursday’s loss to the Miami Dolphins.

“Every player just has to contribute and perform and produce when they’re out there, and that goes for any player,” Harbaugh said Monday. “So if you’re a running back, you need to run hard, you need to break tackles, you need to get yards, you need to pass protect, you need to run the right route out of the backfield, catch the ball and get upfield.

“If you’re in the rotation, special teams sure would help you. Get out there and run down kicks, get on the punt team, get on the punt return team, because that’s how you got on there when you’re the third back, in that case. So I’m not talking about one player; it’s anybody in that identify, or it’s anybody at any position. You’ve got to produce.”

With Bell passing by waivers Wednesday, the veteran could also return to Baltimore as a member of the practice squad, where he started this season.

Wide receiver

James Proche II’s playing time rose and fell last season with his special teams contributions. Now his role on game days could again hinge in part on another wide receiver’s value there.

With Sammy Watkins back from a thigh injury, Proche was idle Thursday for the first time this season. The Ravens activated six wide receivers for their game against Miami: Watkins, Bateman, Boykin, Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Devin Duvernay and Tylan Wallace.

After a strong training camp, Proche has carried over his improved play on offense to the regular season, making eight catches for 118 yards in eight games. Wallace, meanwhile, hasn’t been targeted once. But the fourth-round pick has carved out a role on special teams, ranking fourth in total snaps (176). Proche, who lost his punt return job to Duvernay last season, has played just 36 special teams snaps in 2021.

“He’s turning out to be a really good [special teams] player,” special teams coordinator Chris Horton said of Wallace last month. “Again, [he’s] another guy that’s never played any special teams in his career. … I think every week, he’s just going to continue to get better.”

The Ravens’ timeshare is just as interesting at the top of the thoroughness chart. In Thursday’s game, their first with their top three wide receivers obtainable, Brown led the team in offensive snaps (55), followed by Duvernay (44), Bateman (40), Watkins (23) and Boykin (11). All but Duvernay have been sidelined by injuries this season, which will continue to affect playing time. So, too, will positional flexibility.

“We have four receivers, truly, that can play all three [wide receiver] locaiongs,” wide receivers coach Tee Martin said last month. “That’s very scarce to have. I’m thankful it’s for us, and we can move guys around. Because really, if you couldn’t do that, it would have been really hard for us to get to this point with the injuries that we’ve had.”

Tight end

Nick Boyle is seemingly on track to make his 2021 debut Sunday. He was a complete participant in practice Wednesday for the first time since the Ravens moved him back to their active list Nov. 8.

Harbaugh said Monday that Boyle, one of the NFL’s top blocking tight ends, was “close” to playing against Miami. But after a short week of practice, when Boyle was judged to be limited in two walk-throughs, the Ravens activated their usual foursome: tight ends Mark Andrews, Josh Oliver and Eric Tomlinson and fullback Patrick Ricard.

With Boyle close to returning, the Ravens could be forced to choose between receiving and blocking ability Sunday if they activate just four players at the tight end/fullback position. Oliver has seven catches for 59 yards this season and is more dynamic in the open field, but Tomlinson (one catch for 7 yards) has graded out as one of the NFL’s top blockers, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He’s awesome,” Andrews said Wednesday of Tomlinson. “He goes to work every day, works hard, but he’s really, really good. He’s extremely underrated, I think, throughout this league. He’s really good at what he does, and I think there [are] a lot of similarities between him and Nick.”

Adding Boyle, meanwhile, is “like adding another Pat Ricard,” Andrews said. The Ravens have deployed Ricard more as an in-line blocker and slot receiver this season, and Boyle’s return could give coordinator Greg Roman more freedom to use personnel groupings featuring two or already three tight ends or fullbacks.

“Just having all these guys, all these tight ends, especially in a tight end-centric offense,” Andrews said, “I think we’re going to be able to do a lot of things.”

Week 11

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Sunday, 1 p.m.

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Line: Ravens by 5

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