The Juggernaut Index No. 27: The Baltimore Ravens

The Juggernaut Index is our annual ranking of NFL teams for fantasy purposes. Repeat: FOR FANTASY PURPOSES. We're interested in yards and points here. We began at No. 32, the NFL's least useful franchise (Oakland), and we're working our way toward the elite teams. These ranks are astonishingly accurate and highly collectible. Please enjoy them responsibly.

27. Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens were fourth in the NFL in rushing yards last year (148.5 per game) and fifth in rushing TDs (20), so you might naturally assume that they produced at least one must-start fantasy back. But no.

Instead, Baltimore gave triple-digit carries to three different running backs (Le'Ron McClain(notes) 232, Willis McGahee(notes) 170, Ray Rice(notes) 107), none of whom reached 1,000 yards on the season. Head coach John Harbaugh refused to tell us in advance which of his backs was going to be a fantasy asset, and which of them would be completely useless.

The pileup is still in place entering 2009. McClain finished strong last season -- he was the ninth-highest scoring fantasy RB over the final five weeks -- but all the recent buzz belongs to Rice. (That's him in the image above, shaming Leon Hall(notes). He was hardly the only Raven who abused Hall last year). The 5-8 Rice has added bulk during the offseason, he's running with the starters, and Harbaugh seems enthusiastic:

"People see him as a third-down back because of the success he had last year, but I don't think we have any question that he can be an every-down back."

You can't draft Rice as such just yet, although it's clear his touches will increase. Expect another committee from the Ravens, but with a redistribution of the workload. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has a nice history where running backs are concerned (Tomlinson in SD, Brown in MIA). The 265-pound McClain is a short-yardage terror who figures to poach goal line work. McGahee required more surgical maintenance during the offseason (ankle, knee); if we're drafting today (which would be ridiculous), he'd rank behind Rice and McClain on my board.

Baltimore will almost certainly continue to run a lower-risk, ball-control offense, but it's still worth noting the fact that Joe Flacco(notes) had an impressive second-half in his rookie season, despite facing a brutal schedule. Flacco has a big arm and ideal size (6-6, 230), and the Ravens' first-half schedule isn't all that intimidating in '09. (The first four home games: Kansas City, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Denver). He'll be a situational, roster-worthy fantasy play. Flacco's upside really depends on Baltimore's hazy situation at receiver.

Derrick Mason(notes) recently announced his retirement, but he did it at an odd time and in an unconvincing way. There's plenty of skepticism, and he's expected to meet soon with Harbaugh to discuss the situation, whatever it is. I'm not willing to bump Mason from the WR ranks just yet; he's been a consistent, under-appreciated fantasy play for too long. With Mason in semi-retirement, Baltimore has been linked to various out-of-work vets, including Drew Bennett(notes), DJ Hackett(notes) and Marvin Harrison(notes). The Ravens were reportedly interested in Brandon Marshall(notes) before Mason's announcement, so don't rule out that possibility.

As a longtime Mark Clayton(notes) apologist, perhaps I should recuse myself from any discussion of his '09 fantasy value. He's been notoriously inconsistent, plagued by injuries and sketchy quarterbacks. Clayton is entering a contract year and the Mason situation certainly makes him a receiver of interest. In (very) deep leagues, Demetrius Williams(notes) should be on your radar, but the Baltimore offense isn't likely to produce three rosterable WRs. It may not produce two.

Todd Heap(notes) and LJ Smith(notes) top the depth chart at tight end; those two are just below Wesley Walls and Frank Wycheck in my 2009 ranks. Smith, predictably, has dealt with groin issues during the offseason. Rookie Davon Drew(notes) has reportedly impressed, but he's not draft-worthy. Heap is currently the closest thing the Ravens have to an ownable fantasy TE.

Other Ravens notes: Baltimore had the top-scoring fantasy DEF in both 2008 and 2006. They're No. 4 in our ranks for 2009, and they're second to Pittsburgh in early ADP at Mock Draft Central (114.9 overall). Team defense performance is wickedly volatile, but the Ravens have been as reliable as any unit for fantasy purposes. Rex Ryan and Bart Scott(notes) have both moved on to the Jets, but plenty of talent remains. Terrell Suggs(notes), Ray Lewis(notes) and Ed Reed(notes) are the IDPs to target. ... Steven Hauschka(notes) and Graham Gano are battling for the opportunity to replace kicker Matt Stover(notes) (free agent), and the Baltimore Sun reports that the competition is too close to call. Here's more: "The winner might not be determined until after the final preseason game Sept. 3. If the kickers can't separate themselves on the field, it could come down to a gut decision." Please share whatever your gut is telling you in comments...


Earlier Juggernaut posts: 32) Oakland, 31) Cleveland, 30) St. Louis, 29) Miami, 28) NY Jets.


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