Will Ricky Williams deflate Ray Rice's production?
Ray Rice has been drinking plenty of chocolate coconut water while training at his alma mater, New Rochelle High School, this summer.
Routine defined his offseason schedule, as it did for many NFL players, particularly when the lockout left them to tend to their own training regiments. Whether working with heavy ropes, running routes on the beach or simply doing full days of traditional weight and cardio work, work was indeed put in. This proved especially important given that Rice had minor surgery on his knee before the lockout began back in March, an ailment he says he is completely past.
While spending a week in Oregon at Nike's world headquarters in early July covering an elite high school football event, "The Opening," I was able to speak with Rice, who was coaching young tailbacks all week, and his trainer about his offseason and more importantly, the upcoming 2011 season.
"I feel like this is going to be a big year for me for several reasons," said Rice, who is a free agent after this season. "I've trained hard every offseason, but this one is special because I have to prove my value and help lead this offense. I'm going to get a lot of work, and I had to prepare myself to withstand what comes my way."
Rice is coming off of a season in which he tallied 1,776 total yards and scored six touchdowns. In fantasy considerations, despite the gaudy yardage, it was deemed a disappointing season due to Rice's expensive draft price and his languid start to the season that included no scores and just 76 total yards per game in his first four contests. In real football terms, Rice did well to amass so many yards in the face of a lingering knee ailment he incurred in September.
The Ravens have shaken up their tailback corps this offseason. Gone from the backfield mix in Baltimore are the "Mc's" -- touchdown vulture Willis McGahee and versatile fullback Le'Ron McClain, who together accounted for 128 carries and 35 catches out of the backfield. Fullback Vonta Leach and veteran tailbackRicky Williams now join Rice to form the Ravens' rushing attack, a unit which was sixth in the NFL in terms of rush attempts last season.
How will these roster transitions affect Rice as he enters his prime production years?
We'll start with Leach, since it's bound to be a brief evaluation. McClain averaged 58 touches over the past two seasons in Baltimore after compiling more than 1,000 yards of total offense in 2008 on more than 250 touches. Leach, meanwhile, is a truly traditional fullback who has zero rushes in his past two seasons but has 28 receptions (20 of them coming in 2009) in that time. Leach is among the most respected and effective blocking backs in the game, as proved by the consistent lanes he opened last season in Houston for Arian Foster. If anything, this addition only helps the increasingly busy Rice, who topped 300 carries for the first time in 2010, his third season.
The major question, then, is how does Ricky Williams, who posted just under 1,400 total yards and 13 touchdowns in a 2009 renaissance effort, affect Rice's potential as an elite, top-tier fantasy back?
For an anemic Miami running game last season, Williams was the rare bright spot, averaging 4.2 yards per tote to the team's overall 3.7 clip. But if we consider his prolific 2009 season the result of roster circumstance, with incumbent starter Ronnie Brown going down in Week 9 that season, we should then look to what Williams worked with in 2008 and 2010, seemingly more traditional workloads for the veteran.
In 2008, Williams carried the ball 159 times and last season he took on 160 carries. He also hauled in 24 receptions per each of these seasons, putting him at roughly 185 touches per "backup" or "shared" campaigns with Brown in Miami. Let's assume that Williams is in line for the same amount of work in Baltimore, in the 180-touch range. If you consider that McGahee averaged around 115 touches in his past two seasons in Baltimore, with significant goal-line work, that crudely results in 65 more touches for Williams over what we saw McGahee net as Rice's complementary back the past two years. If we also consider the 58 touches McClain was getting per season in Baltimore, and the fact Leach won't get much, if any, work from the ground, then we're looking at a fairly similar dispersal of work in this 2011 backfield, but just with more of it going to Williams in the absence of a busy fullback.
This crude evaluation merely serves to suggest that even with Williams in town, Rice should still get workhorse duties even while ceding 180 or so touches. Backup and complementary backs aren't the premier threats to a starting running back's job security and production, health and production are. Every stud running back needs a reprieve, and Williams is now serving that role for Rice.
The biggest remaining question, one that simply can't be answered until the results on the field bear it out, is how the goal-line work will be divvied up between Rice and Williams. McGahee scored 20 touchdowns the past two seasons, 17 from the ground. If Rice, who is assuredly built well enough to withstand the punishment of goal-line work, can get a larger share of the scoring duties in working with Williams, it only stands to benefit his fantasy production.
I've championed Rice as a top-five selection in fantasy leagues this season. It so happens that I drafted fifth in our first two staff mock drafts, and both times landed Rice at that spot. After Foster, Adrian Peterson, Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, I value Rice as the next best commodity. How many backs going into the 2011 season could arguably, and maybe even likely, get nearly 400 total touches? Rice is one of them.
Given a PPR context, Rice jumps into the second or third spot overall behind Foster and possibly Johnson. In leagues that reward receptions, you can't do much better than Rice, as he was third in the league in targets (82) and receptions (63) for running backs last season and was tops in the NFL in 2009 with 101 targets and 78 receptions.
Total touches, it seems, aren't a concern, even with "Run Ricky Run" competing for carries. Fantasy owners covet touchdowns, especially in standard formats where Rice's receptions go unvalued.
Frankly, there's no way to predict Rice's scoring opportunities, but the departure of McGahee could help to that end. What we can assess is his total yardage baseline, which is among the best in football, and the heavy workload he is in line for, which again is among the highest in football. In the end, Rice claims the requisite ingredients to be an elite fantasy running back.
Forgiveness is rare in fantasy football, but in order to acquire Rice, you'll need to forgive his middling touchdown totals from 2010 and instead focus on the potential of future returns as he enters his prime.
Jim McCormick is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN Fantasy and the digital high school football editor for ESPN High School.