Will any Ravens running back gain 1,000 yards?
So often fantasy owners find a popular young player they like, in a situation in which he could certainly succeed, and simply presume a monster season is ahead. That's what seems to be happening this summer as I hear Ray Rice on many a sleeper list. Yes, we all know the Baltimore Ravens run, run and run some more, relying on ball control and defense to become a surprise contender this decade, and especially last season. Rice was a second-round pick in the 2008 draft and looked pretty good with sporadic playing time as a rookie, and so far this summer he has appeared to be the No. 1 back. In Monday night's preseason game, for example, Rice galloped to a first-quarter touchdown and had the ESPN announcers all excited about his potential. Hey, I agree, Ray Rice could be terrific, and it could be this season.
Of course, none of this means he will be the Ravens' No. 1 guy for this season.
The Ravens have the luxury of a deep backfield of productive options, with Rice the young and speedy legs, Willis McGahee the experienced one who averaged better than 1,100 rushing yards his first four NFL seasons and Le'Ron McClain, the bruising fullback who had the best numbers in 2008. So who wins?
I think it's likely the Ravens will use all three running backs regularly this season and go with the hot hand. We know the Ravens want to run a ton, having led the NFL in rush attempts per game last season, and have sophomore quarterback Joe Flacco operate a smart, mistake-free offense, then let the defense do the rest. In fact, the Ravens might prefer to keep each member of the three-headed running back committee fresh and substitute randomly, keeping the individual workloads in check. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron doesn't call this a three-back system, but a three-good-back system, and it certainly worked in 2008. It can work better this season.
McGahee was supposed to be that main running back when he became a Raven. In three seasons with the Buffalo Bills, the former first-round pick out of Miami was a productive running back, starting his career with a 13-touchdown season and 1,128 yards. He became known as brittle, unreliable and a bit overrated after that, wearing out his welcome and moving on, but still, going to the Ravens was supposed to rejuvenate his career. In Year 1 in Baltimore, McGahee did top 1,200 rushing yards and score eight times overall, but Year 2 didn't go nearly as well because the team had options. It's possible McGahee could rush for 1,200 yards again, or at some point be released. He's a total wild card. But the point is, he's still here, and I would expect he will be used.
If McGahee's performance in 2007 -- he did go to the Pro Bowl -- had been truly revered by the hometown faithful, then Rice probably wouldn't have been chosen so early in the following draft. Then again, don't quite a few teams have multiple running backs with varying styles they like to use in tandem? In Week 9, Rice exploded for 154 rushing yards against the Cleveland Browns. The following week, McGahee splintered the Houston Texans for 112 rushing yards and two touchdowns while Rice was back down to single-digit carries. From Week 11 on, neither McGahee nor Rice got enough carries to do much damage because McClain was so good.
The speedy running backs didn't get much run the final six games because McClain reaffirmed himself as the main running back. In the first four weeks, he received plenty of carries, and scored four touchdowns. In the middle of the season, he didn't do much. And then December was his, as he got most of the carries and broke free for an 82-yard touchdown run in Week 16 against the fading Dallas Cowboys. McClain fell less than 100 yards short of 1,000 on the season, but still easily led the team, and he scored 11 total touchdowns. Under ordinary circumstances, McClain would be a budding fantasy star.
However, head coach John Harbaugh and Cameron don't care who makes it to the Pro Bowl. They want production and victories, and last season they got a lot of both, riding these three running backs to more than 2,000 rushing yards and a trip to the AFC Championship Game. McGahee might not have been the best camper last season, but he remains talented. Rice is certainly talented. And McClain sports a large, wide body coming in at 260 pounds, a fullback by trade who is likely to return to the role. It doesn't mean he won't get carries, especially near the goal line, but it's unlikely he'll be the main ball carrier.
At ESPN Fantasy, we project Rice to be the team's most valuable fantasy asset, with 220 rushes for 926 yards and nine total touchdowns, with quite a bit of work catching Flacco passes as well. McClain is projected for only 508 yards, but eight touchdowns, which makes sense since he'd be doing so much blocking, but he's also an asset near the goal line. McGahee seems the forgotten man, with fewer projected rushes than McClain, 534 yards and three touchdowns. I would assume our relatively low projection on McGahee is based on his lack of durability, and the fact Rice is younger, seemingly hungrier and hasn't dealt with a catastrophic knee injury. McGahee is 27, an old 27 at that. Is it possible Rice has already passed McGahee on the depth chart? Sure, it's possible, but it hasn't been announced, and I don't think training camp or who gets the nod in preseason games is telling. Why would the Ravens overwork McGahee in August?
I'm a bit less convinced that Rice will be the main running back unless injuries or terrific play forces such a move. I'd also be surprised if McGahee doesn't get a chance to play when healthy. Cameron's approach remains to ride the hot hand, see what the defense offers and make instinctive decisions based on each contest. One week Rice might get 18 carries, the next it could be McGahee. This lowers the individual value of each running back for fantasy, but it's good for the team. That's why I wouldn't recommend any Ravens running back in the top 50, because I think all three will fall short of 1,000 yards, and the team will keep its fans and fantasy owners guessing from week to week, and play to play. Someday soon Rice might be a fantasy monster, but I think for this year the competition will keep his value in check.
Eric Karabell is a senior writer for ESPN.com who covers fantasy football. He has twice been honored as fantasy sports writer of the year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. His book, "The Best Philadelphia Sports Arguments," was published by Source Books and is available in bookstores. Contact Eric by e-mailing him here.