Decline at 29? Ravens' Mark Ingram set to deliver his rebuttal

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Mark Ingram II could be the oldest starting running back in the NFL this season, but he doesn't feel like it.

At 29 years old, Ingram has heard how that's the time when many running backs suffer a decline in production. Few running backs crack 1,000 yards at this point of their careers, much less carry the load for their teams.

Ingram, the top back in the Baltimore Ravens' run-heavy offense, is determined to counter that argument.

“People say what they want. I don’t feel like you can put an age on somebody," Ingram said. "Adrian Peterson is 34. He just ran for 1,200 [yards]. So say what you want, I think it’s up to each person. I feel like my best football is still ahead of me."

Ingram is looking to become the fifth running back in the past eight years to gain 1,000 yards at 29 or older, and it takes a special runner to accomplish this feat. Two of the four to do so -- Peterson and Frank Gore -- are likely Hall of Famers.

While many will focus on Ingram's age, he prefers to point to his carries. Ingram has never ranked in the top 10 in rushing attempts in any of his eight NFL seasons. Sharing the workload for the New Orleans Saints with Pierre Thomas, Tim Hightower and Alvin Kamara over the years, Ingram has finished 25th or lower in carries five times.

He's getting up there in years but not in mileage.

"He’s a proven back in the National Football League," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He seems very healthy. [There is] not a lot of wear and tear on Mark. He’s a downhill, physical runner. He fits our style."

Since parting ways with Ray Rice in September 2014, the Ravens have filled the running back spot by patchwork. Baltimore went with Justin Forsett, Terrance West and Alex Collins -- all of whom were cut, played well for a period in Baltimore and came at a bargain.

The Ravens could've followed the same plan this past offseason by giving the starting job to Gus Edwards, an undrafted rookie who was the NFL's third-leading rusher in the final seven games. Instead, Baltimore made Ingram its biggest free-agent addition on offense in 2019, signing him to a three-year, $15 million deal.

Why did the Ravens want Ingram so badly? A powerfully built, 5-foot-9, 215-pound back, Ingram can break tackles when defenses stack the box. He is an underrated pass-catcher who can turn a short Lamar Jackson pass into a big gain. Ingram, with the second-most red zone rushing touchdowns since 2014, is valuable inside the 20-yard line, where Baltimore ranked 20th in the league.

"I think he’s probably the most complete back in the NFL in terms of his ability to execute any run scheme, to pass-protect, to run routes out of the backfield, split him out and run routes," running backs coach Matt Weiss said. "There’s not a play in football that you wouldn’t want to run with Mark."

The addition of Ingram makes sense considering who's calling the plays. Greg Roman, who was promoted to offensive coordinator this year, has a track record with veteran running backs. When Roman was the coordinator in San Francisco, he had Gore. In Buffalo, he had LeSean McCoy.

Ingram is that same type of experienced runner. The only potential starting running backs older than Ingram are Gore and Peterson, and both could play secondary roles to younger backs this season.

Is there something about veteran running backs that stands out to Roman?

"Each guy is his own guy," Roman said. "[Ingram] brings a football character to our outfit and to our unit -- really, to the whole team. I think that goes beyond running back or position."

Ingram will be counted upon as a leader, which should prove helpful with a young franchise quarterback, and as a durable running back. He hasn't missed a game due to injury since he was sidelined for the final four games of 2015 because of a shoulder issue.

There are no signs of Ingram slowing down, either. The past five seasons, his 4.7 yards per carry average is first among running backs.

"Over the course of my entire football career, I was just sharing the ball," Ingram said. "It's kind of a blessing in disguise because I was always wanting the ball, wanting the ball, because I always wanted to be that bell cow. And then, I feel great in my ninth year. I feel like I have many more years of playing this game at the highest level and being one of the best in the game."