Has Lorenzo Taliaferro Done Enough to Be the Ravens’ Starting Running Back?

The Ravens' new running back should be the starter in Baltimore. Here's why.

First thing's first, I'm the realest (realest)/Drop this and let the whole world feel it (let them feel it)…

When I’ve been watching college game tape and preseason highlights of Baltimore Ravens fourth-round rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro, all I can hear in my head is the song “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea. Standing at 6’2”, weighing 230 pounds, Taliaferro just drops that kind of bass when he runs. Everywhere you read about him, someone uses the adjective “thunderous”, or “thumping”, or “rumbling”; I think he looks like he gives that “boom-boom-pow” on every play.

Taliaferro took over for the injured Bernard Pierce in the lead role for the Ravens in Week 3, and we finally saw what made the Ravens so intrigued with this player during the draft process. “New LT” (can I say that?) dropped 91 rushing yards on 18 attempts, as well as a one-yard touchdown plunge. While he doesn’t have the natural shiftiness of a Pierce or even scatback Justin Forsett, Taliaferro has a downhill style the Ravens have been missing for a while. Is he “the realest”, is he “Fancy”, and - most of all - does he deserve the lion’s share of work in the Ravens’ backfield?

Giving Lessons in Physics

I wrote an examination of the Ravens’ running back options in the preseason, checking in with the chances for each member of this unit to contribute in 2014. The basic summary, to quote myself, was this: “Veteran deference indicates that Pierce and Forsett will work in a committee early, but if Pierce falters, I expect to see Taliaferro out there sooner rather than later…. He may simply be more appealing because he is an unknown commodity, but I believe Taliaferro is likely to be the most efficient back of these backups.” Sure enough, we saw some of that hard-nosed efficiency on tape.

But how did he look within the metrics?

We’ll be looking at Taliaferro’s production by Net Expected Points (NEP), our signature numberFire metric. This metric figures out production based on more than just counting stats; it adds up just how much a player contributes to the chances of his team scoring in the form of expected points. Read more about NEP in our glossary.

The table below shows Lorenzo Taliaferro’s 2014 production in terms of Rushing NEP (NEP gained on any rushing attempt), both total and on a per-attempt basis, and his ranks among running backs with at least 15 carries for these metrics.

YearRush NEPRankRush NEP/AttemptRank

You may notice that Taliaferro has no Reception NEP score (NEP gained on successful receptions) in the above table; this is because he has zero catches yet this year. He does, however, have a -0.73 Target NEP (NEP from all targets) on one target. Taliaferro, despite only having played in one game and having less than a fourth of the carries of league-leading DeMarco Murray, still ranks as a midrange starting NFL running back, both in his total value and on a per attempt basis.

This is surprisingly good for a mid-round rookie, but it makes perfect sense when one looks at his resumé from Sunday’s game: he had a decently long romp of 31 yards on one play, converted a goal-line plunge, broke a few tackles, and held up well in pass protection. The metrics don’t lie, and they even confirm what we can see with our eyes. Taliaferro looks like a good runner, and he may grow into a complete back with some time to adapt to pass-catching. But what about his compatriots? Does he deserve to be ahead of Pierce when he returns, or even Forsett?

In The Fast Lane

With the Ravens’ running back position in flux, there's a legitimate chance for each of these three players to seize the reins and run with the job. Who has performed the most admirably? We’ll match up Pierce, Forsett, and Taliaferro to see who deserves the most attention in the Ravens’ run game.

The table below compares these three in terms of Rushing NEP and Reception NEP, as well as depicting their ranks in these categories.

PlayerRushesRush NEPRankRush NEP/AttemptRankRec NEPRankRec NEP/TargetRank
Justin Forsett3010.481st0.35 3rd-4.9856th-0.3355th
Bernard Pierce28-6.0249th0.2251st0.52 37th0.2629th
Lorenzo Taliaferro180.6320th0.0320th0.00N/A0.00N/A

By far, the most prolific rusher on this team has been Justin Forsett, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak’s former Houston Texans player. Much of this value can be attributed to the scheme being a perfect fit for Forsett’s style, as well as his own experience in it. It’s a little shocking to see this expected third-down-only back also leading the team in total rushes, but Kubiak finds guys he likes and knows, and uses them well (he also brought over Owen Daniels this offseason). It’s not just volume either; Forsett is third in the league Rushing NEP efficiency on a per-attempt basis. He has been a force, just clicking in the Kubiak rushing scheme like neither of them ever left Texas.

The next-most valuable rusher? Our friend Lorenzo. The incumbent potential feature back in Bernard Pierce has picked up right where he left off last season, as the worst rusher by NEP in the league in 2013. Pierce is no longer the answer for this backfield as the primary runner - not when a waiver wire scatback and mid-round rookie are trouncing him in rushing value.

Swagger on Super

Back to the main point: with this mess among the veterans, does Taliaferro deserve a bigger share of the pie going forward? I believe so. His rushing so far is sustainable, and in the mold of a legitimate early-down running back. He showed solid hands in college, and may continue to develop as a pass-catcher, becoming a true feature back. Until then, let Forsett continue work as an explosive change-of-pace rusher, and demote Pierce to third-down duties at most.

Ravens fans: you have a new backfield leader in the making, and this one’s a beauty. Lorenzo Taliaferro; put his name in bold. He’s been working, he’s up in here with some change to throw.