What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, Ray Rice was on top of the fantasy world. With four years of top-rate production, Rice entered 2013 being drafted as a top five running back. A hip injury and poor production in 2013 that saw his yards per carry dip to 3.1 have dropped Rice out of the RB1 discussion. Add in a domestic violence incident and a two game suspension and Rice’s ADP has dropped to the RB27 range.
A further look at Rice’s prospects for 2014 may yield the perfect discount for your fantasy team.
THE COMEBACK SEASON
Everyone loves a good comeback story, whether it be from injury or a player trying to redeem himself, like Michael Vick. NFL history is littered with players having bounce back seasons and reclaiming their careers. There is even a Comeback Player of the Year Award. A recent look at fantasy seasons past shows a number of players who followed a poor or injury riddled year with a spectacular one. Often times these players were had at a discount, catapulting their owners into the playoffs or even championships. Some owners actually devise draft strategies exclusively targeting players coming back from injuries or down years specifically for the discount. In 2013 LeSean McCoy dropped in drafts due to injury. In 2012 it was Adrian Peterson coming off knee injury going in the late third. Jamaal Charles owners were also rewarded in 2012 after he came back from injury.
Just like these players, Rice has the pedigree and past performance that suggest a possible return to glory. In 2013 Rice showed toughness playing through injury. Luckily Rice’s hip injury did not require offseason surgery. If we concede last year due to the injury and look at the rest of Rice’s time as a starter, he has averaged 1141 rushing yards, 563 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns a year. That equates to 15.7 PPG and is a primary reason why he has been among the top RBs drafted in the first round over the years. Compared to the 10-year scoring average for RBs, that output is consistent with RB5 overall performance. Ask yourself, how many RBs with a late fifth-round ADP have 1,700-yard, eight TD upside? Rice not only has that upside, he has that history of past production.
CHANGES IN BALTIMORE
A lot has been made about the Kubiak/Shanahan run scheme and the players that have succeeded in it. The truth of the matter is that Rice is the more talented than any of his predecessors. There is no reason to believe that Rice can’t excel in this zone blocking run scheme. While Taliaferro is still an unknown at the NFL level, Pierce hasn’t done much to make anyone think that he can push Rice for carries as his career yards per carry (3.7) and TDs per touch (.01) rates are well below Rice’s. Rich Hribar wrote a great piece about the Ravens outlook in 2014 with Kubiak calling plays.
While everyone is excited about the possibility of Lorenzo Taliaferro becoming a star, neither he nor Bernard Pierce share the elite RB traits of Rice. A look at Rice’s profile over at PlayerProfiler.com, shows just how ridiculous Rice is as a specimen. He broke out at age 18 with a college DR in the 92nd percentile. His BMI and speed scores both rank in the 89th percentile. RotoViz fans know how important agility scores are for RBs. Rice’s agility score is beyond elite at 10.85, especially when compared to Pierce at 11.35 and Taliaferro at 11.1.
Another thing that is sometimes forgotten is just how good Rice is as a receiver. His 6.2 yards per target is among the best at the RB position. Since 2009 Rice has led his position with 336 receptions, tied with Darren Sproles. Even if Rice were to see a reduction in carries, his role as lead pass catcher out of the backfield isn’t likely to change. Even with last year’s horrible 3.1 YPC, Rice has averaged 4.3 YPC for his career in comparison to Pierce’s 3.7 YPC. So there still isn’t any evidence that there is a better option to tote the rock for the Ravens. While L.T. does project to be successful, he is still a fourth-round pick who may be a year or two away. Even though Rice has a fair amount of tread on his tires, he is only 27 years old. There is no reason to think he doesn’t still have juice in the tank.
Other RBs going around the same ADP as Rice include: Chris Johnson, Bishop Sankey, Trent Richardson, Joique Bell, and Ben Tate. Each one of those backs comes with their own set of risks and uncertainty. Johnson is the only back that has a comparable production history to Rice. Richardson bombed in his sophomore campaign and Tate, Bell and Sankey have yet to prove they can be the man at the NFL level. Rice’s elite receiving skills should also make him a more desirable target for those in PPR leagues while also raising his potential scoring floor.
News of Rice’s demise could be overblown and possibly due to injury. Players like Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and others have bounced back to return to top form and Rice has the chance to do the same. When Kubiak has had a capable lead rusher and not a committee, he has historically committed over 64 percent of his offenses rushing opportunities to his lead back. That opportunity along with a return to health could propel Rice back into the RB10 conversation.
Public perception, recency bias, and a two-game suspension are giving drafters an opportunity they would not likely have with a player of Rice’s pedigree and past production. FantasyPros currently has Rice’s composite ADP at pick 65. A price like that makes Rice a prime target no matter what draft strategy you employ. Drafting Rice in the fifth-to-sixth round could be a move that yields first-round production and wins championships. Don’t let this discount pass you by.