How do you project a running back who typically has high expectations but is coming off the worst year of his career ... but has lost 15 pounds of excess weight and says his injured hip is much better ... but is mired in some legal trouble ... all while his team is expected to draft one or maybe two running backs in the coming week?
Carefully. Very carefully. With deep breathing.
Ray Rice was a mess last year for Fantasy owners, posting 10-plus Fantasy points just four times in 16 games. LeGarrette Blount and Rashard Mendenhall each had more! His other 12 games saw him score six or fewer Fantasy points. He stunk, his offensive line stunk, the whole Ravens run game stunk.
And yet, there's optimism?
So far Rice's promised to keep his weight down and the Ravens have promised to shore up their O-line. During a recent minicamp the Ravens' head trainer raved about the shape Rice was in. And thus far Rice appears to be on track to avoid jail time for his assault incident in Atlantic City this offseason (a suspension, I think, might get handed down).
Those facts aside, Fantasy owners just can't assume he'll bounce back. Here's where my mind is at with Rice's projections:
I don't expect 16 games. I'm assuming Rice will get a suspension for his actions, but it might be for one game. Maybe he'll miss another one for injury. Or maybe no suspension and two games missed for injury. Or a two-game suspension and he's fine the rest of the way. Whatever. Let's put him in for 14 games.
Now I would think the Ravens would give Rice every chance to remain their primary running back and only peel back his reps if he struggles out of the gate. If we assume a one-game suspension then his first four games (Weeks 2-5) are vs. Pittsburgh, at Cleveland, vs. Carolina and at Indianapolis. He won't rip up all four teams but it's not a horror show -- he should produce enough to make the coaches content. Last year he averaged 14.2 carries and 3.9 catches per game when he was horribad. I might expect him to hover around these same averages because the Ravens will have someone (maybe two someones) help to ease Rice's workload. This comes out to (*takes out calculator*) nearly 200 carries and 55 catches over 14 games. Maybe give him a teeny tiny bit more of work.
The Ravens hired Gary Kubiak this offseason to guide the offense. Forget about his shortcomings as a head coach, the guy wasn't too bad at developing run offenses in Houston, producing a top Fantasy rusher in four of his last six seasons. Of everyone currently on the roster, and knowing Kubiak's unwillingness to lean heavily on rookies (he won't unless he has to), Rice should have a shot to be productive provided he regains a semblance of his form. The Ravens offensive line didn't make any Pro Bowl-style additions but Jeremy Zuttah is serviceable at center and another lineman could especially help the front five.
In an attempt to give Rice the benefit of the doubt regarding his status, I'm willing to give him a clean 4.0 rushing average while being more generous with his receiving average -- 8.1 per catch. I'm especially optimistic about his role in the passing game because the Ravens have a decent crew of receivers with Steve Smith aboard and Dennis Pitta healthy. It's not the Broncos offense of 2013 but Baltimore's offense should attract enough defensive coverage to give Rice a shot at moving forward on screens and dump passes. Plus those guys won't hurt his chances at seeing six-in-the-box a decent amount on runs.
That would mean around 800 rush yards and 445 receiving yards for Rice. Nearly 1,250 total yards. For whatever it's worth, it would mark his third-lowest total in his career, so it's not really a generous prediction.
Touchdowns. Kubiak. The two don't always go together but when his offenses are near the goal line you'll see one of three things: A bootleg pass, a quick pass to a tight end or a handoff. I think the real question is just how many carries Rice will get inside the 5. In the past we've seen Kubiak lean on his top running back in that spot -- Arian Foster is living proof. So is Steve Slaton. In fact, in all but one of Kubiak's eight years in Houston whoever led the Texans in carries also led them in rushing touchdowns. That bodes well for Rice, who had 36 carries and 13 targets in the red-zone despite his ugly play last season. I think you'll see decent improvement here.
Rice has displayed a pattern of fumbling multiple times in the odd years and then barely fumbling in the even years. Whatever, I'm still assuming he'll cough up the ball at least once. Only once, since he's usually pretty good about turnovers.
Final early projection: 202 carries, 810 yards, 55 catches, 445 receiving yards, seven total touchdowns (six rushing) with a fumble.
Let me know if I'm out of my mind. Twitter: @daverichard. Email: on the left side of this page.