Ray Rice's Likely Return to Ravens Lineup Doesn't Make Him Must-Start Fantasy RB

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 5:  Running back Ray Rice #27 of Baltimore Ravens rushes against the Denver Broncos during the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 5, 2013 in Denver Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Fantasy owners, step off the ledge—Ray Rice is back in practice.

The Baltimore Ravens running back and first-round pick throughout all fantasy formats—not that Rice gives a good damn about your league anymore—returned alongside his teammates Wednesday for the first time since missing last week's win over the Houston Texans due to a strained hip flexor. 

Rice told the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson that he planned on being in the lineup Sunday when Baltimore takes on the Buffalo Bills. Although there were no confirmations from John Harbaugh or the Ravens medical staff, Rice showed no known issues in practice and should be a participant the rest of the week.

This is obviously good news for the Ravens. They're already engaging in what should be a down-to-the-wire war with the Cincinnati Bengals for AFC North supremacy; having their best offensive weapon can't hurt.

Sep 15, 2013; Baltimore, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) is looked at by a team trainer after suffering an apparent hip injury against the Cleveland Browns during the second half at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens won 14-6. Mandatory Cre
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

As for the people who really matter—you, the fantasy football owner—Rice should be deployed as normal. From a medical perspective, there shouldn't be much reason to worry about re-injury. Dr. Derek Ochiai, a Virginia-based orthopedic surgeon and sports physician, spoke with Wilson last week and indicated Rice's particular injury was short term.

Assuming he doesn't feel pain after Wednesday's practice, the risk of aggravation is minimal:

If somebody has normal strength with no limp and is running and you can believe them when they say they don't have any pain, then it would be fine to let them go back and play at that point. If you meet those criteria, your risk of re-injury is very close to before the injury. So, being cautious and taking an extra week won't make any real difference.

Just one thing before you take "starting fantasy running back" off your milk carton: Rice might not be a viable RB1 anymore. He rushed for only 72 yards on 25 carries during the first two weeks of the season and averaged only four yards per on his 11 receptions.

It's a limited sample, so it's hard to get too invested, but I noticed that he didn't have quite the same burst on film. Pro Football Focus' data agrees (subscription required), ranking Rice 34th among 43 qualifying running backs in its elusive rating. He also doesn't have any carries longer than 14 yards. 

The six-year veteran isn't close to realizing his NFL mortality just yet—he's 26, still a little bit away from the running back death zone—but plenty of circumstances have contributed to his slow start, even without the injury.

DENVER, CO - SEPTEMBER 5: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the  Baltimore Ravens audibles at the line of scrimmage against the Denver Broncos during the game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 5, 2013 in Denver Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Brad
Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

First, the Ravens offensive line might be terrible. We're only three weeks into the season—small sample size neon sign—but Baltimore has struggled to open up holes for Rice or Bernard Pierce. Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards metric ranks the Baltimore unit as the fifth worst in the league. Ravens running backs have been "stuffed," where a player is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage, on 32 percent of their carries—second most in football.

Baltimore has especially struggled running inside the tackles. Football Outsiders' behind-the-paywall breakdown of adjusted line yards shows proficiency on the edges—usually attributed to stretch or toss plays on the outside. As the attempts move more toward the inside guards, however, the worse things get for Ravens running backs.

Having a flawed offensive line obviously affects Rice and how he's viewed from all perspectives. No running back is talented enough to be consistently productive when the big guys up front are allowing near-instant penetration. 

BALTIMORE, MD - SEPTEMBER 22:  Running back Bernard Pierce #30 of the Baltimore Ravens scores a touchdown in the second half against the Houston Texansat M&T Bank Stadium on September 22, 2013 in Baltimore, Maryland. The Ravens defeated the Texans 30-9.
Larry French/Getty Images

Still, Pierce's continued presence is more disconcerting than anything. Taking over the reins for the first time in his career last week, the second-year back rushed for 65 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries. Pierce's numbers weren't great, but he still ranked well inside the top 20 among starting running backs in Week 3. 

Any unquestioned starting running back, no matter how untalented nor how porous the offensive line, has value in fantasy football. Just ask those poor saps who spent their Sundays hoping for Vick Ballard to break out or watching Michael Turner fall on his face after a series of three-yard gains last season. If Rice were returning to a situation where he'd be getting a guaranteed 25 touches, fantasy owners would have little choice but to deploy him. 

Baltimore isn't such a situation.

Even before the injury, Pierce was obviously encroaching on Rice's carries early in the season—even more so than he did in 2012. Pierce had only three fewer carries in the Ravens' evisceration at the hands of Denver in Week 1 and actually received more work in Week 2, though Rice getting hurt had a bit to do with that.

December 9, 2012; Landover, MD, USA; Baltimore Ravens running backs Ray Rice (27) , Bernard Pierce (30) and Anthony Allen (35) walk onto the field prior to the game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sp
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Rice has more value than Pierce because of ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, but this is a 50-50 timeshare. Pierce had 108 carries all of last season; he's already at 52. With the Ravens offensive line failing to open holes and Rice splitting carries, the scenarios where he'll recoup his Round 1 value are narrowing. 

Alas, it's equally hard justifying sitting your first pick in Week 4—especially when he's playing the Buffalo Bills. The Bills are giving up 155 rushing yards per game this season. It's only been by fluke that they're yet to allow a touchdown on the ground, making their mid-tier ranking against opposing rushers in fantasy misleading.

In other words: Something has to give here. Either the terrible Ravens offensive line will take advantage of the terrible Buffalo run defense, or vice versa. Or neither will happen, as both play just poorly enough to make everyone throw up their hands in disbelief.

What's clear is the following: Rice is a running back who runs behind a struggling offensive line, splits his carries down the middle and will be two weeks removed from a hip injury come Sunday.

Bills or not, ask yourself this: If his name wasn't Ray Rice, would you even think twice about starting him? Roster circumstances may dictate Rice getting the nod in your lineup this week, just don't be surprised if you're disappointed by the result.


Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: