I’m not quite sure how worried we should be about Bernard Pierce taking a nice, fat kid bite out of Ray Rice’s carries, and therefore also Rice’s overall production potential. My reactionary spidey senses say probably not very worried. If the worried scale we’re using has “dammit, forgot to lock the front door” at one end at “OH GAWD there’s a fire (sale?)” on the other, we should definitely lean much more towards the former.

But oh, the worry is there, and it’s real.

As a fantasy commodity, Rice is stupid good. You know this, but let us review the many reasons.

  • For four straight seasons he’s had at least 1,000 rushing yards, and at least 400 receiving yards.
  • Last year, his 1,143 yards on the ground and 478 through the air led to 208 fantasy points, which easily justified his status as a first-round pick. He was one of only six running backs to surpass the 200-point mark.
  • His versatility translates into more opportunities for production, and chunk yardage. Throughout his five-year career, Rice has averaged 317.4 touches per season, and he’s turned thouse touches into an average of 1,646 yards per year (overall, he’s recorded 8,233 yards from scrimmage).
  • His value as a pass catcher (and therefore, well, just his overall value) won’t descend, because he’s Joe Flacco’s bestest friend. Rice has been targeted at least 80 times over each of the past four years, topping the 100-mark twice.

Alright, so keep reading those numbers as they whisper sweet nothings into your ear. Rice will universally be a first-round fantasy pick again this year, and he’s more than deserving of that status. Also, there’s the added little bit of gravy that he hasn’t missed a game since 2008, despite the stereotype associated with his small frame.

Pierce is a comin’, though, and you may eventually be able to thank him for existing. As the days tick by and we drift closer to August when fantasy fiends are crunching every number ever written while pulling hairs from their body in places where hair shouldn’t be, the chatter around Pierce could create apprehension. Then, even a slight fall in Rice’s value — and maybe a fall to the second round in 10-team leagues — is a pretty sweet bargain.

That’s thinking ahead and dreaming a little bit. But it’s possible, especially if words like these ones from Garrett Downing at earlier this week continue to surface on the Internets.

While Rice has been firmly entrenched at the top of the depth chart the last few seasons, he’ll get pushed by Pierce this season. The two backs have different styles, so rotating them in and out of games will allow them both to stay fresh and also mix up the looks for the defenses. Rice had 257 carries to Pierce’s 108 last year, but a strong showing from Pierce could balance out that distribution a little more.

That overall gap only tells a few pages of the Rice/Pierce story in 2012.

After being a third-round pick last spring to replace the retiring Ricky Williams behind Rice, Pierce was used very sparingly over the first six games of 2012, and he missed one game due to injury. But despite his limited usage and only 30 carries, Pierce still showcased the thing that he can do better than Rice: bust tackles, and then keep on keepin’ on. Pro Football Focus observed that early in the season between weeks one and six, Pierce average 4.03 yards after contact.

Then late in the season and during the playoffs, Pierce started to receive the ball in his gut a little more, going from 3.8 carries per game prior to Week 6, to 10.4 after that. The result was a lot of burst from a large(er) man who’s an ideal complement for Rice (at 6’0″ tall and weighing 218 pounds, Peirce has four inches and six pounds on Rice).

The gap in carries between Rice and Pierce (149) wasn’t nearly as vast as the gap in +20 yard runs (three for Pierce, and five for Rice). Pierce had a late-season surge, and if we include the playoffs, 555 of his overall 734 rushing yards came starting in Week 12. That’s a stretch when he also averaged 5.5 yards per carry.

But maybe the most impressive piece of Pierce sleeper fodder is this, also from PFF:

He finished the regular season with 21 missed tackles forced as a runner compared to Rice’s 20.

Again, note the difference in carries, because it’s still rather important. Rice had 149 more of them, yet he still fell one missed tackle short of Pierce.

Currently, the cost to own Pierce is already climbing since he’s a highly valuable handcuff. Fantasy Football Calculator has his average draft position at 112.5, and that number climbs slightly at FantasyPros to 117. Still, his ceiling is high for that price, making Pierce a must own for those who spend a first rounder on Rice, and late-round trade bait or even decent flex fun for everyone else.