Has Alex Collins proved he's the Ravens' running back of the future?

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Alex Collins is undoubtedly the Baltimore Ravens' best running back on the roster, if not their top offensive player.

The question that the Ravens will have to answer going forward is whether Collins has proved to be their running back of the future.

Collins is the ninth-leading rusher in the NFL and nearly carried the Ravens to an upset road win with a career-high 120 yards rushing against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the AFC's top record at 11-2, on Sunday. He's a physical back who runs through contact. He's got the speed to bounce runs to the outside. More recently, Collins has expanded his role as a receiver and a finisher in the red zone.

If not for Collins' surprising emergence, Baltimore might not be in control of their playoff fate with three weeks remaining. Over the past six games -- in which the Ravens have won four times -- Collins has averaged 96.8 total yards per game and has scored five touchdowns. His production has represented 30 percent of Baltimore's offense.

But Collins isn't the biggest back, which will raise concerns about his ability to handle heavier workloads and his durability. The other drawback is his ball security after three fumbles in 12 games.

Would all of this prompt the Ravens to go against their trend and select a running back early in the draft? Baltimore hasn't drafted a running back in the first three rounds since Ray Rice in 2008.

But this draft is expected to be loaded at running back. LSU's Derrius Guice, a 220-pounder with strength and agility, could represent great value if Baltimore is selecting in the bottom third of the first round. Other backs who should go anywhere from the bottom of the first round through third round are: Georgia's Nick Chubb, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson, USC's Ronald Jones II, Stanford's Bryce Love and Notre Dame's Josh Adams.

The Ravens certainly have other needs on offense. Baltimore has to upgrade at wide receiver and tight end. It's a big reason why the Ravens' passing offense ranks third-worst in the NFL, ahead of Buffalo and Chicago (both of which changed starting quarterbacks this season).

Adding a highly drafted running back shouldn't be considered a slight on Collins. Many teams have two top-notch running baks from New Orleans (Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara) to Atlanta (Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman) to Carolina (Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey).

Right now, Collins is the most consistent offensive weapon on the Ravens. Since taking over as the starter in Week 4, Collins has gained 701 yards rushing, which are more than Kansas City's Kareem Hunt, Indianapolis' Frank Gore and Philadelphia's Jay Ajayi. He's also scored five touchdowns in his past four games.

This is impressive for a running back who was cut by the Seattle Seahawks at the end of the preseason, spent Week 1 on Baltimore's practice squad and didn't start a game until Week 4.

The Ravens, though, haven't given Collins more than 20 carries in a game this season.

"I always let those guys know, whatever the workload is that they want me to have, I’m all-in," Collins said. "At the beginning of the season, I’ve always prepared for whatever the workload is. If it’s five carries, if it's 20 or if it's 30, I’ll just do it all to the best of my ability."

The Ravens' use of Collins has worked. He's been one of the explosive yet efficient runners in the league. His 5.1-yards per carry average ranks third among running backs this season. His 14 runs of 15 yards or more is tied for second in the NFL.

Though it will be a few months before the Ravens reveal what they're going to do at running back, Collins should remain one of the keys to get Baltimore back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. After facing Cleveland (No. 6 in run defense), Collins and the Ravens play Indianapolis (No. 23) and Cincinnati (No. 32).

"He's a great player," center Ryan Jensen said. "He's really hot. He's making a lot of good plays for us."