The mass Baltimore post-Super Bowl exit was mostly concentrated on the defensive side of the ball. But one pretty important receiver is gone, and the primary tight end is out for the year too. Ruh roh?
Notable Additions: Dallas Clark
Notable Draft Picks: Similar to free agency, the focus was all defense, though Aaron Mellette could climb up a wide open WR depth chart.
The Marquee Men (the elitest of the elite)
Ray Rice (ADP: 8.8): As we all do, I know Ray Rice will be great this season (#analysis). The problem with the Rice discussion is exactly how great he’ll be, and that’s a vital question when we’re evaluating a player who’s being selected at the very top of the draft, and one who will cost you a first-round pick. Where, exactly, should you take Rice?
We’ll start with the dent in the good ship Rice first: Bernard Pierce’s emergence is a clear threat. The Ravens have the welcome problem of employing two highly effective running backs, who do two things well. Pierce is fast in his own right (he had a 78-yard run last year), but he has a good four inches on Rice, and is a better short-yardage option. When the desire is to run between the tackles, it’s Pierce who may get the call a little more often.
Anytime a premier running back is having carries striped away, it’s troubling on some level, and from Week 10 on last year Pierce started to receive more touches. Prior to that week Pierce was clipping along at just 4.3 carries per game, and then beyond over the Ravens’ final seven games he ran 11.1 times per week, though the latter number is a little skewed by a meaningless Week 17 that was essentially a preseason game after Baltimore had already clinched the AFC North.
The result was a still great season for Rice which fell something short of spectacular. His carries decreased by 34, as he fell just four carries shy of a career low since becoming Baltimore’s backfield starter. The resulting impact on his yardage was pronounced, with his rushing yards falling by 221 compared to 2011, and his per game average tumbling by 13.9 yards. If the Ravens were bringing back the same offense, Pierce’s presence would be enough to justify Rice teetering on falling out of the first round (and in some drafts I suppose he still is, which is wrong and awful). But that’s not at all reality.
Anquan Boldin is gone, and after having his hip carved up by someone who hopefully isn’t Dr. Nick, Dennis Pitta is too. That’s both of Joe Flacco’s primary short options in the passing game suddenly erased, which more than compensates for any touches Rice is losing to Pierce in the running game. He’ll be featured in the slot more often, and his targets should easily climb back to 2011 levels (104) after falling last year (84) as Flacco’s connection with Pitta grew.
Now, about that draft slot. After Adrian Peterson is off the board at first overall, you could take one of eight running backs who are nearly interchangeable, and feel pretty warm and fuzzy about what you’ve done. I’m rarely in the business of copping out because that’s not how you make a hot sprots take, but Rice’s eighth overall ADP feels about right. If we’re splitting hairs (and oh, we are) I struggle to put Rice ahead of Trent Richardson, LeSean McCoy, or Jamaal Charles. Although Rice’s workload shouldn’t suffer too greatly, his touches will likely be below those three, enough to make a difference.
That said, Rice has averaged 1,876.5 total yards per season over the past three years, and it wouldn’t at all even a little bit surprise me to see him maintain that pace.
Torrey Smith (ADP: 49.4): Torrey Smith is the kind of guy who can turn a seemingly routine slant into a 77-yard touchdown. We know this because it happened just last week. He’s also the sort of guy who can haul in nothing or close to it. We know this because it happened last night, and he also had three games last year with only one reception, and a paltry 49 in total.
Of course, both Smith’s targets and consequently his catches will increase this year with Boldin gone, Pitta out, and few other options who aren’t named Torrey Smith available for Flacco. But that doesn’t mean the nature of Smith’s game is suddenly about to morph into something entirely different.
Though he’ll be forced to have a greater intermediate presence this year, Smith is at his best when he’s stretching a secondary and running vertically. With that speed he made a lot with very little in 2012, haling in five catches for 40 yards or more. Cincinnati’s A.J. Green led the league in that long ball metric with seven, but he needed 48 more catches than Smith to get there.
With his speed and after the catch acceleration, Smith has breakout potential which will only be limited by the lack of threatening options who deserve defensive attention elsewhere among the Ravens’ pass catchers. At his current ADP, Smith will often mark the drop off to the next tier, as immediately after him others with high ceilings but uncertainty and risk follow, like Pierre Garcon and Hakeem Nicks.
The Middle Men (middle-to-late round options)
Joe Flacco (ADP: 143.9): I understand why you’re a super big Joe Flacco fan while watching reality football. He’s a winner, and winners win because winning is the winningest thing and winner can do. But in fantasy, the recency effect may lead you astray, as the last time we saw Flacco during a meaningful football game he was finishing off the 49ers in the Super Bowl, and completing a playoff run when he threw 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
It was a great performance, but it doesn’t make Flacco a great fantasy quarterback. He’s still a lousy one, and with Pitta and Boldin gone, this winner is even lousier.
Even with Boldin and Pitta, Flacco still finished 14th at his position last year in fantasy points (229 in total), just behind Josh Freeman, who threw nine interceptions over just his final three games. His fantasy-relevant metrics are filled with meh, most notably his 22 touchdowns (tied for 15th), and 238.6 yards per game (16th). This is when I insert the now proverbial line that if you’re the late-round quarterback type and you wait on a high risk but high upside option (let’s say Jay Cutler), then Flacco is the safe and secure insurance to slot in behind him. He won’t do much for you, but with his 14.3 fantasy points per week, he’ll consistently give you league average production.
Bernard Pierce (ADP: 102.0): I’ve already touched on Pierce and his impact quite a bit above in the Rice discussion. Again, he’ll suck back some carries, be a short-yardage threat, and possibly a bit of a goal-line vulture. Strategy-wise, Pierce is coming off the board far too early to be in standard handcuff territory. But if you’ve spent a first-round pick on Rice, you’ll have to bite on a few wooden spoons, reach, and make the Pierce pick early.
Sometimes in this life we have to do things that are undesirable.
The Menial Peons (sleepers, flex plays, and matchup plays)
Ed Dickson (ADP: undrafted): Let’s pour one out for Dennis Pitta, because here’s what happened to his season long…
There’s still hope that he could make a late-season appearance, but it’s very much the fleeting, grasping kind, and he’ll be irrelevant for fantasy purposes. So what of the new Pitta?
Dickson has limited value since he’ll be restricted as an in-line tight end after Dallas Clark was signed to handle any slot duties. Still, bear in mind what’s said above and below regarding the sorry state of the Ravens’ receivers beyond Smith, and Flacco needing to target someone when he isn’t throwing deep to either Smith or Jacoby Jones, their primary (see: only) function. Last year, that job belonged to Boldin, who’s only slightly smaller than a tight end, and he pretty much plays like one. And it’s a job that would have gone to Pitta too, who was targeted 94 times last year even with Boldin present, which peaked at 15 targets in Week 2.
Now Dickson will inherit most of those targets, likely finishing around 80 at minimum. That’s a lot of opportunity for a player at a muddled position beyond the very top who isn’t even being drafted.
The Mop-Up Men (deeeep sleepers and handcuffs)
Jacoby Jones (ADP: 155.3): By default, Jones is the Ravens’ No. 2 receiver amid a cluster of mediocrity. The perception of his booming, electrifying plays drastically skews reality.
Example: yeah, that 70-yard, season-saving catch in the divisional round against the Broncos made possible by a brutal Rahim Moore misplay was great. Do you know how many receiving yards had in that game prior to said catch? One. Just one.
Two weeks later in the Super Bowl the result was similar: one absurd, long catch which is forever etched in your mind, and then nothing. That’s what Jones does, and who he is. He’s strictly a deep, home run vertical threat, the kind who had 55.4 percent of his yardage (406 yards overall) on just six catches last year, and had only one game with more than three receptions. His targets and therefore his receptions will increase this year, but his effectiveness won’t. When the routes a receiver is able to run effectively are so limited, his output will be severely restricted too. No amount of speed can overcome the simplicity that Jones presents to defenses.