Why Ray Rice is Being Undervalued in Fantasy Football Drafts
Ok, that's exaggerating the situation a bit. Rice is still a 1st-round pick in the vast majority of fantasy football drafts. And Pierce turned in an impressive rookie campaign, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
But there's this idea sweeping across fantasy nation that Pierce will put a significant dent in Rice's 2013 production. I'm not buying it.
There's no reason for the Ravens to cut back Rice's workload right now. He's been one of the most productive RBs in the NFL since taking over lead duties in 2009. No player has more total yards than Rice over the past 4 seasons. He leads all RBs in both catches and receiving yards during that span. Only 2 players have rushed for more yards. And only 4 have more rushing TDs.
Now, Rice has amassed 1,387 regular-season touches over that 4-year span. Only Chris Johnson has more. But Rice is still only 26 and in his prime. He's shown no signs of decline. He's averaged 4.57 yards per carry over the past 2 years - actually a shade higher than his 4.51 mark across his first 3 seasons. Rice's 7.8 yards per catch in 2012 marked a career low, but it still ranked 11th among RBs with 30+ grabs. And Rice posted a personal-best 9.3-yard average in 2011.
Let's give Pierce some love, too. The 3rd-rounder finished 6th among rookies with 532 rushing yards last year. And his 4.93-yard average was better than all 5 of the guys who racked up more yards. Pierce busted off 4 runs of 20+ yards, including a 78-yarder in Week 16 and a 43-yarder in the opening round of the playoffs.
But Pierce was a true change-of-pace back. His 108 regular-season carries ranked just 40th in the league. He only carried 10+ times in 5 of 20 games (including playoffs).
In Pierce's only game with more than 15 carries (a meaningless Week 17 contest), he averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per rush. And his final 7 attempts in that one went for a total of 14 yards. He hit a wall.
Still, there's a popular belief that Pierce's workload will grow substantially in 2013. Maybe it will. He did post 123 and 103 rushing yards in his 2nd and 3rd-busiest games of 2012.
But here's the thing: even if Pierce's role grows this season, it doesn't mean Rice's will shrink.
The Ravens might be one of the run-heaviest teams in the league this year. With Anquan Boldin gone, their #2 WR spot could be a black hole. And Torrey Smith remains unproven as a #1 WR.
Baltimore threw the ball on 55.8% of their offensive plays last year. That was their highest percentage since 1999. Their 444 rush attempts were their fewest since 2002.
Joe Flacco is a quality QB. (Let's not get into the argument about the "E" word.) And the Ravens just paid him a boatload of money. They're not gonna have him hand it off 40 times per game. But it's also a safe bet that the Ravens will run more this season than they did last.
That means Rice's workload can stay the same, even if Pierce's grows.
That's exactly what happened down the stretch last year when Jim Caldwell replaced Cam Cameron as OC. With Caldwell calling the shots over the final 6 games last season (including the playoffs and omitting Week 17, when Baltimore rested its starters), Pierce averaged 9.7 carries per game. That was a significant increase over the 5.2 he averaged in Baltimore's first 13 games. Pierce saw double-digit carries in 3 of those final 6 games after reaching that level just once in the first 13.
Rice's workload didn't diminish, though. He averaged 20 carries over the final 6 contests -- more than 3 carries beyond the 16.8 he averaged in his first 13 games.
So how did both Rice's and Pierce's workloads grow over those final 6 games? Simple. The Ravens ran the ball more. They went with a virtually even run-pass split in those 6 contests - 202 passes and 203 runs. They averaged 33.8 runs per game. That was way up from the 25.7 rush attempts they averaged over their first 13 games. Baltimore ran it on just 42.5% of their plays during that stretch.
There was a clear re-commitment to the run after Caldwell took over. Expect that to continue in 2013. That means Rice can remain a workhorse even as Pierce's role grows.
Let's say we split the difference between Baltimore's runs-per-game under Cameron and Caldwell. That'd give them about 30 attempts per game - a mark that would have ranked just 10th league-wide last year. Now let's say that Rice and Pierce combine for the same 82% of total team carries that they did in 2012. (That percentage could easily rise.) That gives us 395 carries to divvy between the 2 backs. Even if Pierce averages the 9.7 carries he did over last year's final 6 games, that'd still leave 240 total carries for Rice. That would have ranked 16th in the NFL last year. Consider that Rice's floor for rushing attempts.
We haven't even gotten to Rice's production in the receiving game. His 61 catches and 478 receiving yards last year were his lowest marks since his 2008 rookie campaign. Yet he still ranked 2nd among RBs in catches and 4th in yards.
Now, Rice's receiving production did take a hit in his 6 games with Caldwell calling plays last year. Rice averaged just 4.7 targets, 2.8 catches and 23.7 yards per game over that span. Those marks were all down from his averages over his first 13 games. They extrapolate to 75 targets, 45 catches and 379 yards. Those would be subpar numbers for Rice, but they also would have all ranked inside the top 10 among RBs.
With Boldin gone, look for Rice to play a significant role in Baltimore's 2013 passing attack. Pierce doesn't appear to be a threat in that area. He caught just 8 balls in 20 games last year. Only 2 of those came after Caldwell took over. Even in his college days at Temple, Pierce totaled just 19 grabs in 3 seasons.
Rice will remain the Ravens' pass-catching back. Consider him a lock for 50 receptions, and he'll probably finish closer to 70.
Rice remains a good bet for 300+ total touches. And there are only so many RBs you can say that about. Just 10 RBs did it last year. Rice, of course, was 1 of them. He's topped 300 touches in each of the past 4 seasons.
Oh, Rice also finished as a top 11 non-PPR fantasy RB in all 4 of those years. He's been no worse than 7th in PPR leagues. Expect to see him safely inside the top 10 again in 2013 - even if Pierce sees more action.