One of the most disappointing fantasy football campaigns in 2013 was that of Baltimore Ravens’ running back, Ray Rice. His lofty ADP placed him in the mid-first round of drafts and although he managed to play in 15 games, his total fantasy points ranked 30th at the position.
In Rice’s defense, he was battling a hip injury throughout the year and recently admitted that he “should have thought twice about (playing with the injury).” On top of that, Baltimore’s offensive line, which ranked 28th in efficiency by Pro Football Focus, did him no favors and the inconsistent passing game, led by Joe Flacco and a depleted receiving corps, didn’t offer much assistance either.
Rice's Career Statistics
*Positional ranking in total fantasy points
For the four seasons prior to 2013, there were not many backs as consistent as Rice; he recorded at least 1600 total yards and finished among the top twelve at his position in each of those four seasons. Additionally, he was PPR gold, notching at least 61 receptions per year in that same timeframe. For an indication of how much he struggled in 2013, look no further than his abysmal 3.08 YPC.
The future for Rice does look much brighter. He is still just 27 years of age and the nagging injuries should be behind him for the start upcoming season - all indications are that the aforementioned hip injury was only muscular, as was a thigh injury he suffered, and both only needed rest to heal. After a recent meeting with Rice, Ravens' General Manager, Ozzie Newsome was quite optimistic about Rice's prospects:
"I think Ray is committed to being as good a football player as he has been. We had great dialogue yesterday on what we think we can do to help Ray to get there. But that combination of us having an understanding and a willingness to provide some help to him, and him having a willingness to work his butt off, we will again have a Pro Bowl running back in Ray Rice next year."
Newsome, along with John Harbaugh, didn't waste much time in improving the environment for Rice by hiring Gary Kubiak as the new Offensive Coordinator. A disciple from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, Kubiak employs a zone blocking scheme that has been an absolute blessing for ball carriers and will make the running game a priority. In Kubiak’s introductory press conference, he had the following to say:
“Through my conversations with John (Harbaugh), the thing that stood out to me from the very beginning is that John talks about being physical – that’s what we want to do. Offensively, that’s where everything starts for us. We’ve got to be able to run the football to make the rest of it go.”
Not only should there rededication to the running game, a renewed efficiency should follow as well. Let’s take a look at how featured running backs have fared under Kubiak:
Featured Running Backs Under Gary Kubiak In Past Ten Seasons
|2006||Committee with Ron Dayne and Wali Lundy|
|2007||Committee with Ron Dayne and Ahman Green|
|2009||Committee with Steve Slaton and Ryan Moats|
|Per Gm||----- -----||1.0||18.59||83.4||4.49||0.69||2.81||24.5||0.11||15.59||15.59|
Even before Arian Foster, mediocre talents such as Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson and Steve Slaton enjoyed careers seasons under the direction of Kubiak - that trio averaged 1,178 yards & 9 touchdowns on ground as the featured back. The next player in line to reap the benefits will be Rice. While Bernard Pierce’s presence may worry some and Kubiak has used committees in the past, it was more out of necessity and not preference.
To further quell those concerns, look no further than Ben Tate, who has been a fine player in his own right, but was still unable to inhibit Foster’s touches with the Houston Texans. Pierce also struggled mightily in 2013 (his YPC stood at 2.86) and recently had shoulder surgery that may sideline him up to training camp, restricting his offseason activity and placing him behind the eight ball.
In order to gain a better understanding of Rice’s potential in 2014, the table below contains mashed up projections with Rice’s past production and Kubiak’s usage of featured running backs:
Rice x Featured Running Backs Under Gary Kubiak
*Rice’s career GP was used, as well as his career YPC and YPR to calculate yardage totals
**Touchdown totals were calculated by averaging Rice’s touchdowns per touch with featured running back’s touchdowns per touch under Kubiak
***Carries and receptions were calculated by averaging Rice’s average carries and receptions since 2009 with featured running back’s average carries and receptions under Kubiak
The total fantasy points of 222.2 from the above projections would have fluctuated between 5th and 7th among running backs over the past five seasons. While expecting Rice to return to his career YPC after such a dismal season may seem like a lot to ask for, that type of production is certainly realistic.
Even in Week 17 versus the Cincinnati Bengals, while there was little semblance of running lanes, Rice displayed some burst, most notably when bouncing the ball outside on a two-point conversion and beating the defenders to the pylon. He also made a nifty juke late in the game that left Domata Peko Sr stumbling before falling down himself, which may have been attributed to fatigue after touching the ball on three consecutive plays.
With that all that being said, to satisfy the doubters, here is how the previous projections would look with a 10% decrease in touches and efficiency (yards per touch):
Adjusted Rice x Featured Running Backs Under Gary Kubiak
While the totals may not be as sparkling, the 185.2 total fantasy points still would have been good enough for an average finish of 13th among running backs over the past five seasons, making him a borderline RB1. A couple added reasons to target Rice would be his durability and motivation; he’s only missed one game in the past five years and will be playing for what may be his last big NFL contract. While others may be weary of Ray Rice in 2014, having a short memory and securing a back-end RB1 at an RB2 price in your fantasy football drafts should pay huge dividends by season’s end.
You can find me on Twitter, @KyleWachtel, where I’d be happy to answer any of your questions.