Under The Microscope: Ravens RB Lorenzo Taliaferro

Matt Waldman profiles Ravens runner Lorenzo Taliaferro and offers his take on his re-draft prospects after Ray Rice's suspension.

The events surrounding Ray Rice, the NFL, and the media all deserve a substantive conversation. No one here wants to diminish the severity of the situation and the educational opportunities to discuss the problems of domestic violence. However, Footballguys is a fantasy football website and like you, we'll compartmentalize the past 24 hours of news to the immediate fallout that impacts your leagues:

What do you need to know about the Ravens' running back depth chart beyond Justin Forsett and Bernard Pierce?

Forsett will earn the start Thursday night after a decent performance in relief of Pierce, who suffered his first career fumble and failed to reach the second level of the Bengals defense on a consistent basis. Pierce was in primarily a gap style offense at Temple and despite being healthy last year, he was less effeicient than a banged-up Ray Rice

There is potential for Pierce to rebound and earn a larger share of the Ravens' workload. He's a powerful back with good balance and some agility. However, there is reason to believe his vision and development as a pass protector and receiver does not match the rigors of Gary Kubiak's zone offense.

It's a likely reason why the Ravens acquired Forsett, a former reserve with the Texans who has performed in a zone attack as far back as his days in Jeff Tedford's offense at Cal. Forsett is quicker than fast and he runs with balance and patience. Most important, he's a reliable third-down option. 

What Forsett lacks is that wear-'em-down power to soften up defenses for bigger gains in the fourth quarter. He's also a seven-year veteran with a one-year deal. The 2015 NFL Draft has a strong class of running back and it's likely that the Ravens will take a long, hard look at a top prospect this fall. Todd Gurley fits the bill if Baltimore flounders and earns a top pick. Ameer Abdullah has the versatility and football savvy of Rice and could be a mid-round bargain if he gets lost among the more impressive athletes at the position. 

But barring the Ravens adding a veteran or promising free agent who surprises the team with his skill -- and the fact the team cut rookie Fitzgerald Toussaint Monday evening (which could be to make room for a veteran) -- the most intriguing option to fantasy owners this year could be rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. The 6'0", 229-pound runner from Coastal Carolina looks the part to a fantasy owner examining roster vitals. There's even speculation from some news outlets that the rookie has been promoted to No.2 on the depth chart in the wake of Rice's suspension and Pierce's underwhelming opener.

Taliaferro's Game: A Tape Review 

In case you're new to my work, I've been studying rookie prospects at the skill positions in my publication The Rookie Scouting Portfolio for the past 10 years. Today will be a quick take on what you need to watch if Taliaferro earns more time and what conditions in your fantasy league make it a good decision for you acquire him. I'll also provide a free sample to his play-by-play scouting report from the 2014 RSP that you can download. 

Taliaferro qualified as a "project" in this spring's analysis of the 2014 RB class. When I watched him, the first player who sprung to mind was Rashad Jennings -- smooth, powerful, agile, and good enough hands to rely on him as a receiver from the backfield. 

The rookie is a strong runner who can push a pile and earn yards after contact. He's a second-effort player who routinely takes defenders for a ride. If he develops a quick feel for his offensive line in Baltimore, he might display this kind of power, but it will mean he's thinking quickly enough to hit creases with authority and this is an issue for many rookie runners. 

 

 

However, his agility doesn't match that of a dynamic runner with size and power like Le'Veon Bell, who, even before his weight loss could run east-west at the line of scrimmage and defeat the angles of the defense.

Taliaferro is agile enough to make lateral cuts and adjust to his blocks at the line of scrimmage when he runs downhill, but he's a long strider and he's not as dynamic as many NFL starters when it comes to his short area burst. There's enough speed to reach the edge of a defense on a well-blocked play, but it means that Taliaferro's strong suit isn't avoiding penetration, especially when forced east-west. Opposing defenses will want to keep the rookie from getting down hill.   

The first play is a good example of what Taliaferro can do when he builds up speed and momentum on a perimeter run and then a second play that shows what happens if he encounters penetration early:

With An Unfettered Start

 Against Penetration

When Taliaferro hits a decent crease in the offensive line, he can create space with his size, strength, and agilitiy to spin and slide off contact. 

Taliaferro's reliable hands could become an asset if his head isn't swimming as a rookie adjusting to this new situation. He catches the ball with his hands and he's a punishing runner in the open field.

At the same time, don't get Taliaferro's burst mixed up with the likes of Carlos Hyde -- even when comparing Taliaferro in the open field to Hyde working through the line of scrimmage.  

Taliaferro has the potential to develop into a complete back if he can mentally and physically adjust to the speed and athletic demands of the game. One of these demands is pass protection.

There are numerous instances in this game above where Taliaferro displays hustle and physicality as a blocker for his teammates on designed runs or in the open field during a scramble or pass reception. The biggest question is how well he diagnoses pressure, blocking schemes, and if he can consistently deliver a punch and move with his opponent in the pocket. This is a different type of blocking than running down hill and throwing one's body around.

The rookie was statistically productive during the preseason and according to coaches, displayed solid pass protection in addition to his hands as receiver. However, good work during the preseason against third and fourth-team players isn't nearly as many steps up the ladder of difficulty as performing at starter speed, savvy, and intensity.

I rate prospects in dozens of aspects of their play, but I also place their skill with certain categories into tiers:

  • Star Caliber: A level of skill that rivals the best in the game at his position. 
  • Starter Caliber: A level of skill commensurate with a full-time starter at his position. 
  • Committee Caliber: A baseline amount of skill for a player to contribute productively in an NFL offense. 
  • Reserve Caliber: These players lacks some amount of technique or athleticism to produce at a consistent rate, but it's still good enough for them to contribute to a rotation if called upon. 
  • Free Agent: Lacking the minimum skill set to hold down a job long-term in this specific area. 
  • Deficient: Unlikely receiver interest from a team if the player has too many of these issues and he doesn't address them. 

I use these tiers for categories such as Power, Balance, Ball Handling, Speed, Acceleration, Vision, Elusiveness, Blocking, Receiving, and Durability. Taliaferro earned the starter tier in seven areas: durability, elusiveness, vision, acceleration, ball handling, balance, and power. He earned a committee rating for his speed and a free agent role with his blocking although I noted that his opportunities for improvement as a pass protector were rather easy fixes. 

This ratings indicate that Taliaferro has enough potential to develop into a starter or top-tier backup in an NFL where there's a small demand for feature back jobs, but a large glut of talent. At this point of his development, none of Taliaferro's skills are so strong that he'd be tough to replace. His vision also appeared more suited to a gap scheme like Pierce than a zone scheme because he showed a preference for picking one crease and creating space against contact or working off a lead blocker in the hole rather than functioning as a cutback runner.

Advice For Fantasy Owners This Year

Depending how he adapts, Taliaferro has potential worth holding onto as a dynasty league prospect, but as a commodity in 2014 re-draft leagues he's more of a waiver wire flier after your top priority picks. Personally, I'd rather try to claim him as a first-come, first-serve option after any blind bidding process. There's a strong possibility that any owner hot and heavy for Taliaferro this week will drop him by October if the carries aren't there or lack the productivity of another hot option. 

I believe the Ravens offensive line needs a back with better acceleration and creativity as a zone runner than what I've seen thus far from the rookie. At the same time, running backs with average skills for the NFL can thrive for a season because teams often make adjustments to accommodate a runner when the depth chart situation gets desperate.

Packers rookie Samkon Gaddo was a big back from a small program who lacked special skills in any area of his game, but he still helped fantasy owners during 8 games in 2005. His statline of 143-542-6 on the ground and 10-77-1 through the air was good enough for Gaddo to be the No.12 fantasy RB during the final 8 weeks of the season. 

The Ravens' running back situation has enough instability that it's not a bad idea to consider Taliaferro, but he shouldn't be a first-priority waiver claim despite the likelihood that he'll earn more opportunities in the starting lineup as early as Thursday. Forsett remains the best fit even as the lead back and I wouldn't be surprised if Baltimore looks for a veteran so it doesn't need to lean too heavily on Taliaferro this early. 

If you're thinking about Taliaferro this week when there are more talented options with a depth chart situation that has equal or greater clarity for playing time, it's better to lose on the bidding for Ravens back and have to pay a higher premium to acquire him if he shows signs of fantasy life. 

I wouldn't bid anything greater than 3-5 percent of a free agent budget for Taliaferro when there might be 20 options on the waiver wire with better talent and opportunity. There are also several receivers and a few tight ends that could produce immediately and earn a fantasy owner bargaining power to acquire a surer bet through a trade.