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When Lamar Jackson was injured, J.K. Dobbins stepped up

As Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins hopes for a new contract despite a system that gets the best out of players at his position before ever paying them, Dobbins has a pretty strong piece of evidence to suggest he should get his financial reward before he has a potentially strong year in 2023.

Late last year, Dobbins had multiple impressive performances late in the season, despite the Ravens not having their star quarterback, Lamar Jackson.

From the week after Jackson suffered a knee injury against the Broncos (Dobbins was still out following a mid-year a cleanup procedure on the knee he injured in 2021) through Week 17 and then in the playoffs, Dobbins got it done despite Lamar Jackson not being on the field to attract defensive attention.

Dobbins had fifteen carries for 120 yards in at Pittsburgh. Thirteen carries for 125 at Cleveland, Twelve for 59 against the Falcons. Seven for 93 against the Steelers.

The Ravens rested Dobbins in the ultimately meaningless Week 18 game against the Bengals. He then had 105 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown in the playoff loss at Cincinnati.

In the four crunch-time regular-season games, Dobbins had 397 yards on 47 carries. That’s an average of 8.44 yards per carry. Not in one game – in four.

So, yes, there’s reason to believe Dobbins could have a huge year. Especially if the new offense introduces (as expected) a greater passing threat, potentially making it easier for Dobbins to find running lanes.

That’s the conundrum for Dobbins. Have a great year and make only $1.391 million? Or stand firm for something that will reflect what he’s about to do?

The best compromise would be something that significantly rewards him for playing (per-game roster bonuses and/or playing-time incentives) and playing well (yardage incentives) in 2023. He reasonably might prefer just getting his second contract, and foisting the injury risk onto the Ravens.

The problem is that Dobbins doesn’t have much leverage. He needs to have a big year in order to set him up for a future reward. The problem, of course, is that the franchise tag will then keep him from getting it.

As suggested on Friday, running backs need their own bargaining unit. Whether it’s their own salary cap or a league-wide fund that pays them for performance in their early years or a shorter path to true free agency, running backs need something to change, because they’re getting screwed by the current system.

No running back may get more screwed this year than Dobbins this year, if he performs like he did in the final weeks of 2022 but gets less than $80,000 per week for his efforts, risks, and sacrifices.

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