From Bell-Cow to Bernard
June 28, 2013 | Justin Bonnema
There is no such thing as a safe draft pick. There is only the illusion of safety, the comfort of a name brand that we feel good about. We want to see certain names in our lineups. They make us feel better about our chances and give us a sense of confidence.
Ray Rice is one of those names.
At least that’s what your heart says. That’s what history says. That’s what his ADP says.
But that’s not what I say.
Despite risking accusations of sacrilege in various fake football circles, I can only advise you avoid No. 27 in most formats, especially if you have a top-five selection.
Rice epitomizes the illusion of safety that the first round promises. I’ve seen him go as high third and as low as seventh. I’m here to declare that anything above 11th overall is a mistake.
Blasphemy, I know. Allow me to elaborate with a few bold words.
Vonta Leach Separation Anxiety
The evolution of the NFL offense has had a grave effect on fullbacks. Vonta Leach is the absolute best in the league, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a cap causality in the wake of Joe Flacco’s monster contract. Clearly, the position of fullback has been devalued to the point of near extinction.
But is it justified? And more importantly, how does it affect Ray Rice?
When you’re the best in the business, any replacement will be viewed as regression. But in order to place a value on something, with the hope of predicting future production, we need to know just how much regression we face.
That’s why, with your best interest in mind, I watched every one of Rice’s runs from 2012 and cataloged his production with and without Leach. The results were rather underwhelming.
To keep things sanitary, I’m washing my hands of Week 17 in which he carried the ball only three times for five yards in a meaningless game. And besides, if you play in a league that counts Week 17, it’s time to make new friends.
Minus that one game, Rice had 164 carries for 738 yards with Leach, and 90 carries for 400 yards without Leach. 4.5 YPC and 4.4 YPC respectively. At face value those numbers may seem negligible. But there are a couple of factors to consider.
First is sheer volume. On 64% of his carries, Rice had Leach blocking for him. Two-thirds of his production came with the best blocking fullback in the league leading the way. That won’t be the case in 2013.
Second is health. I’m not going to say it out loud but I will point out the obvious in that with bad blocking comes more contact. And with more contact comes the propensity to, you know, not stay…
And then there are situational stats. In a singleback formation, shotgun or otherwise, defenses are forced into being pass conscience, though the mere presence of Rice eliminates that to some degree. So it’s not surprising to see him break a big run against a nickel defense such as the 43-yarder he had against Philadelphia in Week 2. In theory, these yards will still exist in 2013, or at least the opportunities will. In fact, there may be more of them. The point here is that it comes as no shock to see Rice be just as effective sans fullback in certain situations.
But it’s not his yardage that I’m worried about. What I’m worried about are those ever so important goal line situations. All 12 of his touchdowns in 2011 and eight of his nine touchdowns in 2012 came with Leach blocking in front of him. Most of them, as you might guess, were within seven yards of the end zone.
The difference between being a good fullback and being a great fullback is not just blocking a defender but moving a defender. Leach excelled at punching holes in the defensive line. Without him, I fear Rice will be doused with goal line repellent in a shaky red-zone offense.
Strength of Schedule
The truth about strength of schedule is we won’t really know how tough it is until the season has been completed. Only then will we be able to look back and through the pure lens of hindsight, gauge just how hard Rice had it. But we do have the past to at least give us a head’s up.
FFtoolbox.com has this handy little chart that is sortable by position and ranks each team based on 2012’s toughest defenses. The theory is simple: each position is ranked for each team based on the amount of fantasy points allowed by the opposing defense.
Notice how the Ravens are ranked dead last in Weeks 1-16. Translation: Ray Rice has the hardest schedule of all running backs.
You can interpret that however you want to. Obviously, Rice has established himself to be matchup proof. The golden rule is that you don’t sit your studs. An even better rule is don’t draft running backs that will give you weekly stress. In a game where matchups are as important as the players you draft, it’s imperative to not surround yourself with bad luck.
The Ravens will look a whole lot different when they take the field in 2013. The loss of Leach is alarming enough; the loss of Anquan Boldin, Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard and Paul Kruger doesn’t bode well for consistency sakes.
From a fantasy production standpoint, Boldin barely registers as a flex option. When it comes to realistic production, his departure leaves Flacco and Co. in a bit of a grey area. Torrey Smith can stretch a defense, but he isn’t good enough to dominate them on his own. Boldin is a tough-yardage receiver who has earned the trust of Flacco over the years. There’s a reason he’s led the team in receiving yards in all three seasons he’s been with the Ravens. He’s even effective when he doesn’t catch the ball. In Week 7 of 2011, all three of Rice’s touchdowns were the benefactor of three past interference calls drawn by Boldin. His absence will be felt in one way or another.
Defensively, leaders are born in the heat of battle, not acquired through free agency. Regardless of how good or bad Ray Lewis has been in the last of his years, his leadership in the locker room and on the field can’t be replaced. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Paul Kruger’s youth and potential as a pass rusher signifies a glaring loss in a defense that vaunts quarterback pressure.
All things being equal, the North still fields the strongest defensive landscape in the AFC. But with the Ravens facing Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Ben Roethlisberger, Matthew Stafford, Jay Cutler and Tom Brady, it’s going to take more than Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs to keep their offense in winning situations. That means more of Joe Flacco’s $120 million arm and less of Rice’s $35 million legs. (Good news for Dennis Pitta)
From Bell-Cow to Bernard
Your fears of Bernard Pierce are very much legitimate. His 108 carries for 532 yards earned him a spotlight as a Pro Football Focus Secret Superstar. Gordan McGuinness writes:
“With 33 missed tackles forced as a runner, and a further four as a receiver, (Pierce) finished the year with an Elusive Rating of 75.7. That number put him third among all running backs that saw at least 25% of their team’s carries, bettering even Adrian Peterson, albeit on a much smaller sample size.”
Translation: the committee approach has officially landed in Baltimore and that’s bad news for Rice owners. FYI, Pierce can be acquired in the 10th round. He’s more than worth his ADP, which is more than I can say for Rice.
Over the last three seasons 21 running backs have been selected in the first round of fantasy football drafts. Only eight have finished as a top-ten scorer. And I’m not talking about overall. I’m talking about as a top-ten running back. So it’s important to choose carefully when your name is on the clock.
Ray Rice may seem like a safe pick. History backs that up. But with the Ravens going through a transition period and the emergence of Bernard Pierce, I’m not sure he’s worth the sticker price. If you’re drafting 11th or 12th and he falls to you, it’ll be hard to say no. Anything above that is a mistake.