COMMENTARY | Since Ray Rice burst onto the fantasy scene in 2009, he has been one of the most consistent and versatile running backs available. He has regularly been a top-five pick, and this season will probably be no different.
For the first time since Rice became a fantasy stud, though, Rice could fail to live up to his lofty draft position. With Bernard Pierce in the wings, Rice's carries should decrease, and with them, his fantasy production.
Last season, Rice was again among the best fantasy running backs, especially in points per reception (PPR) leagues. Though he had his lowest yardage total since 2008, Rice still was easily among the top-10 fantasy running backs thanks to his receiving statistics and double-digit touchdowns.
Despite Rice's relatively successful season, Bernard Pierce was the real revelation in the Baltimore backfield. Pierce gained more yards per carry, more yards after contact and more broken tackles than Rice, despite Rice's significantly higher number of carries.
Pierce was simply more elusive and at times even more dynamic than Rice in 2012, especially in the playoffs. In fact, Pierce led all running backs in broken tackles in the playoffs, thanks to his shiftiness, power and explosiveness.
After that excellent rookie season, Pierce looks primed for a bigger role. Rice, who already saw his carries decrease significantly last season, would see his production fall as a result.
The worst case scenario would see a roughly equal timeshare between the two players, where both Rice and Pierce would garner around 175-200 carries. More likely, Rice will still be the No. 1 back, seeing his carries drop a little to accommodate a slight bump in Pierce's carries. Even a small decrease would severely impact Rice's fantasy outlook, as he already receives fewer carries than most top-tier backs.
More than anything, Pierce will threaten Rice's tremendous consistency. With Pierce a viable option, there will be no guarantee in any individual game that Rice will be the bellcow back. In certain matchups, Pierce could be a better option, limiting Rice's touches and possibly neutering his fantasy production in those games.
With this in mind, Rice is not worthy of top-five consideration in most leagues, but PPR leagues will value what should be an increased role for Rice in the passing game.
Rice is focused on his role in the passing game more than ever, recognizing perhaps that his greatest value comes from his versatility. Rice leads all running backs in receptions since 2008, even after last season saw his reception and yardage totals dip to their lowest since his rookie year. Last year was probably an aberration: Rice should see an uptick in receptions and yards as he helps to replace Anquan Boldin's lost production.
Another reason to be optimistic about Rice is that the Ravens' offensive line should be upgraded. Last season, the Ravens struggled in all phases of blocking as Michael Oher and Kelechi Osemele were miscast at left and right tackle respectively. That, paired with a revolving door at left guard, ensured struggles in blocking that severely limited the running game at times.
This year, though, Oher and Osemele are playing at their ideal positions at right tackle and guard, respectively. Bryant McKinnie upgrades the left tackle position, while Gino Gradkowski should be an able replacement for Matt Birk at center. All in all, the offensive line is better, and new assistant Juan Castillo should help as well.
The essence of Rice's fantasy outlook is this: he will see significantly fewer carries, but probably do more with them. His receptions and receiving yards should increase, but not enough to offset the loss of carries, and in turn, rushing yards in non-PPR leagues.
All in all, Rice is probably worthy of a mid-to-late first-round pick in traditional leagues and a higher pick in PPR leagues. He should go for about 1,000-1,100 rushing yards, 70-80 catches, 600-800 receiving yards and around eight touchdowns.
Make no mistake. Rice is still an elite back, and his amazing versatility and leadership will still drive the Ravens' offense. His carries may decrease and his production along with them, but his impact will still be as strong as ever.
Shawn Brubaker is a graduate of the Catholic University of America. He has been a Baltimore Ravens featured columnist for Bleacher Report for two years and is currently a co-host of Ravens Central Radio.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Ray Rice
- Bernard Pierce