So, Ray Rice is suddenly chopped liver because of some no-name Bernard Pierce fella?
OK, that’s exaggerating the situation a bit. Rice is still a first-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 running backs in the NFL since taking over lead duties in 2009. No player has more total yards than Rice over the past four seasons. He leads all running backs in both catches and receiving yards during that span. Only two players have rushed for more yards. And only four have more rushing touchdowns.
Rice is still only 26 and in the midst of his prime. He’s shown no signs of decline. He’s averaged 4.57 yards per carry over the past two years—actually a shade higher than his 4.51 mark across his first three seasons. Rice’s 7.8 yards-per-catch average in 2012 was a career low, but it still ranked 11th among running backs with 30-plus grabs. Rice also posted a personal-best 9.3 yard-per-reception average in 2011.
Let’s give Pierce some love, too. The third-rounder finished sixth among rookies with 532 rushing yards last year, and his 4.93-yard average was better than all five of the guys who racked up more yards. Pierce busted off four runs of 20-plus 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-plus times in five of 20 games (including playoffs).
In Pierce’s only game over 15 carries (a meaningless Week 17 contest), he averaged a mediocre 4.0 yards per carry. His final seven attempts in that one went for a total of 14 yards; he hit a wall.
Still, there’s a belief circulating that Pierce’s workload will grow substantially in 2013. Maybe it will. He did post 123 and 103 rushing yards in his second and third-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 No. 2 WR spot could be a black hole, and Torrey Smith is still unproven as a No. 1 WR.
Baltimore threw the ball on 55.8 percent 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 quarterback. (Let’s not get into the argument about the “E” word) and the Ravens just paid him a boatload of money. They’re not going to 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 offensive coordinator. With Caldwell calling the shots over the final six 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 three of those final six games after reaching that level just once in the first 13.
Rice’s workload didn’t diminish, though. He received an average of 20 carries over the final six contests. That was actually over three carries more than the 16.8 he averaged in his first 13 games.
So, how did both Rice and Pierce’s workloads grow over those final six games? Simple. The Ravens ran the ball more. They went with a virtually even run-pass split in those six contests—202 passes and 203 runs. They averaged 33.8 runs per game, which was way up from the 25.7 rush attempts they averaged over their first 13 games. Baltimore ran it on just 42.5 percent 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 percent of total team carries that they did in 2012 (that percentage could easily rise). That gives us 395 carries to divvy between the two backs. Even if Pierce averages the 9.7 carries he did over last year’s final six 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 second among running backs in catches and fourth in yards.
Now, Rice’s receiving production did take a hit in his six 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 over the course of a season. Those would be subpar numbers for Rice, but they also would have all ranked inside the top 10 among running backs.
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 eight balls in 20 games last year. Only two of those came after Caldwell took over. Even in his college days at Temple, Pierce totaled just 19 grabs in three seasons.
Rice will remain the Ravens’ pass-catching back. Consider him a lock for 50 receptions, and he’ll probably finish closer to 70.
The fact is Rice remains a good bet for 300-plus total touches—and there are only so many running backs you can say that about. Just 10 running backs did it last year. Rice, of course, was one of them. He’s topped 300 touches in each of the past four seasons.
Oh, Rice has also finished as a top 11 non-PPR fantasy running back in all four of those years. He’s been no worse than seventh in PPR leagues. Expect to see him safely inside the top 10 again in 2013—even if Pierce sees more action.
All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.