- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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Earlier today, I gave my impressions of the Chicago Bears' signing of Matt Forte in the NFC North Blog. A few hours later, the Baltimore Ravens have locked up Ray Rice. Like Forte, Rice is instrumental in the success of the his team's offense. While I think Forte is a great player, I contend that Rice is a slightly superior back and even more important to his respective club. In fact, Rice might be the running back in the NFL that is most important to his franchise.
The Ravens are not very creative on offense. In fact, they are one of the easiest offenses to prepare for in the NFL. Baltimore uses very few three or more wide receiver sets, generally preferring run-based offensive personnel, often with a pure blocking fullback. They are predictable in that they are a run-first offense that mixes in screens to Rice, deep passes on the perimeter usually to Torrey Smith off play-action, and out patterns to Anquan Boldin. They rely on execution, speed and physicality rather than deception. Again, in Baltimore’s case, this makes them pretty easy to game plan for and to play against.
Without Rice, that execution would be compounded dramatically in a negative manner. Smith and Boldin are decent receivers, but at this point of their careers, they are each rather one-dimensional. Rice is the total opposite. Like Forte, Rice does it all -- and he does it all extremely well. He might not be quite on Forte’s level as a receiver, but Rice is still one of the better running backs in the NFL in this department and catches a ton of dump-offs from Joe Flacco, often bailing his quarterback out.
He is one of the only players in league history to have more than 200 carries and 60 receptions in three straight seasons. Rice has more explosive qualities than Forte and runs with better leverage and with more elusiveness. Rice is a superb runner on any type of running play along with being equally adept running on the inside or outside. Also unlike Forte, Rice is very good in short-yardage situations as well. Rice is the total package.
My only real concern with the signing of Rice is the fact that he has logged 1,069 regular season touches (not to mention the playoffs) over the past three seasons. Although he has not missed a game in that time and has shown he can play through pain and doesn’t turn 26 years old until January. While Rice appears as potent as ever, his smaller stature does give me some pause when considering his long-term effectiveness after so many recent touches.
But the reality is that Baltimore really had no choice in this matter. Unlike Chicago, the Ravens didn’t have a Michael Bush-like backup plan at the position. And I fear the Ravens’ window is closing very quickly, as stalwart Ravens such as Matt Birk, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are on their last legs -- not to mention Terrell Suggs’ injury situation, which is going to be very difficult to overcome. With Rice not in the fold, 2012 was going to be extremely difficult for Baltimore to stack up against the elite NFL franchises. This is a move that simply needed to be made by the Ravens.