Does Ray Rice Have a Long-Term Spot on the Baltimore Ravens Roster?

John Jenkins@jjenksIIContributor IIIJune 19, 2012

How long should Rice flex for the Ravens?
How long should Rice flex for the Ravens?John Grieshop/Getty Images

How important is running back Ray Rice to the Baltimore Ravens?  In the 2011 season, the Ravens finished 12-4.  Rice averaged only nine carries during those four losses, which includes an inexplicable five carries against the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars

To say that Rice is an important part of the Baltimore Ravens' offense may be a slight understatement.

Rice has had a marvelous career thus far.  The 2008 second-round pick has 4,377 rushing yards and 24 rushing touchdowns in 959 attempts.  Considered to be one of the best all-purpose backs in the NFL, he also has 250 catches and 2,235 receiving yards to go along with five receiving touchdowns. 

With all that said, how much of an investment should the Ravens make in one of the NFL's most dynamic running backs?

According to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, Rice wants a contract similar to Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson's.  Johnson received a six-year, $56 million contract.  Most running backs average five years of solid production.  Johnson's production slipped tremendously after signing his big deal. 

Need another example of a running back's production slipping after five years?  Look no further than arguably the best running back in Baltimore Ravens history, Jamal Lewis

Lewis averaged 1,321.8 yards a season in his first five active seasons (he missed 2001).  In 2003, he rushed for 2,066 yards, and some say he was never the same since.  In Lewis' last four campaigns, he averaged 984 yards rushing per season.  His last season, 2009, was his worst, as he rushed for a career-low 500 yards.

Should the Ravens' front office be worried?  Of course.  Any time an organization gives out big money to a player, there is a risk, especially when that player is a running back in a pass-happy league.  But Rice is different.

Rice enhances the passing game with his pass-catching and playmaking ability.  His pass-blocking is also above average.  If Joe Flacco is having one of his somewhat typical off days, the Ravens can take comfort in knowing that good 'ol No. 27 is in the backfield to take heat off the passing game.

The other thing to remember is that Rice spent a good portion of his career splitting carries with the likes of Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee.  He does not have a bruising running style like his predecessor Jamal Lewis.  Rice is more of a "make you miss" kind of back, although a solid between-the-tackles runner.

Considering his importance to the offense, his production and somewhat low mileage, the Ravens have to do what they can to make Ray Rice a Baltimore Raven for a long time.