2014 Team Outlook: Baltimore Ravens
QB Joe Flacco, BAL - Quality Backup
In 2013, Flacco posted his worst season-to-date: passing for 19 touchdowns and 22 interceptions (previous high was 12 INTs). Depending on the length of the Ray Rice suspension, the Ravens will look to return to a run-focused offense (limiting the upside of Flacco for fantasy purposes). Last season's running game struggles forced Flacco to a career-high 614 pass attempts. Volume is not always the answer in fantasy. The 29-year-old has hit 25 passing touchdowns just once over his first six seasons and has failed to complete 60-percent of his passes over his last three seasons -- not exactly justifying the six-year, $121 million deal that runs through 2018. The return of a healthy Dennis Pitta and signing of veteran receiver Steve Smith should help Flacco improve from 2013 when he finished as the 18th-best fantasy signal-caller. Flacco is nothing more than a low-end QB2 with the potential to be a high-end QB2 depending on the matchup. His current ADP (180.03) has him going in Rounds 15 or 16 in 12-team leagues.
Editor's note: The lesson here is there is no reason to reach for Flacco. He'll be waiting for you at the end of your drafts. When the offense needed him to lead, rather than Rice or Bernard Pierce, he was unable to shoulder the burden. We've seen Flacco at his best and his worst and unfortunately, there isn't much of a difference statistically. Consistency is typically a good thing in fantasy football, but not consistent mediocrity.
QB Tyrod Taylor, BUF - Not Draft Worthy
The Virginia Tech alum has failed to impress over his first three seasons, totaling just 19 completions with no touchdowns and two interceptions in limited action. Baltimore was interested in Brandon Weeden before he signed with Dallas and would be wise to upgrade on Joe Flacco's backup before Week 1.
RB Justin Forsett, BAL - Low Potential
Forsett is running ahead of rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro at OTAs and could serve as Pierce's primary backup for the first month of the season (which coincides with the expected duration of Rice's suspension). The Cal alum has failed to crack 65 carries in a season since 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, he averaged 116 carries and an impressive 4.9 YPC. The past three seasons, Forsett has been a fantasy non-factor with Seattle (2011), Houston (2012) and Jacksonville (2013). He could very well serve a pass-catching, third-down back for as long as Rice is in street clothes. Those in deeper PPR leagues should consider watching him if he gets some early playing time.
RB Lorenzo Taliaferro, BAL - Low Potential
DYNASTY SLEEPER: This fourth-round pick from Coastal Carolina has some recent off-the-field concerns, yet he could still play a role depending on how he performs in training camp and into the preseason. He has the size (6-foot, 229 lbs.) to fulfill a short-yardage role. He set every CCU single-season rushing and scoring record and led the Big South with 23 rushing touchdowns (second in FCS), 1,487 rushing yards (fifth in FCS), 124 rushing yards per game (seventh in FCS) and 133 all-purpose yards per game (26th in FCS). Head coach John Harbaugh was reportedly impressed with his pass-protection in rookie mini camp, which should bode well for playing time during his first season. He's a player to watch, especially in dynasty leagues. Considering offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak hand-picked him to be his developmental RB, there is some sneaky potential here.
UPDATE: The rookie has made quite an impression through two preseason games rushing 29 times for 130 yards (4.5 YPC).
RB Bernard Pierce, JAX - Sleeper (undervalued)
Pierce underwent shoulder surgery in January, but is expected to open the season as the Ravens' starting running back since Ray Rice is facing suspension. The 24-year-old Temple alum fell on his face in 2013: averaging just 2.9 yards per carry on 152 carries. Both he and Rice really struggled behind what turned out to be one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Over his first two seasons, Pierce has scored just three touchdowns. Without Rice around to share the workload, Pierce will have a golden opportunity for 20-plus touches per game as the Ravens' lead back in September. It is worth noting that the Ravens' schedule over the first month includes a few difficult matchups against solid run defenses (Cincinnati in Week 1 and Carolina in Week 4). Pierce's ADP (RB42, 123.02) places him around Round 11. This is a pretty good value if it turns out that Pierce hits the ground running as the team's starter.
Editor's note: A hot start would provide RB2-quality production from a back typically drafted as one of the top bench players on a given fantasy team. This offers valuable roster flexibility at the start of 2014. Unfortunately, you have to assume Baltimore's offensive struggles last year were the exception, not the rule.
UPDATE: Many view him as a better fit for Kubiak's zone blocking scheme and the results from the first two preseason games have been impressive (17 carries for 92 yards (5.41 YPC) and a touchdown. Pierce should see close to 20 touches per game in the first two contests (versus the Bengals and Steelers) with Ray Rice suspended.
RB Ray Rice, --- - Gamble (high risk)
Coming off the worst season of his career, Rice's fantasy stock appears to be in free-fall. In 2013, Rice had 214 carries for just 660 yards (44 ypg) and four touchdowns. The offensive line didn't do him any favors as they ranked 24th in run blocking, according to ProFootballFocus. Rice remained a better PPR option as he topped 55 catches for the fifth-straight season (58 catches for 321 yards last season). From 2009 to 2012, Rice averaged 277 carries for 1,267 and 69 catches for 610 yards as one of the more productive backs in the league. Offseason reports suggest Rice looks lighter on his feet after shedding 20 pounds and is down to around 205 (weighed 200 pounds at the 2008 combine). The addition of offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak should help the Ravens' ground game after they produced a league-worst 3.1 yards per carry last season. In more than half of his NFL seasons as a head coach or offensive coordinator, Kubiak's rushing units have ranked in the Top 5 in rushing yards. Rice's current ADP (RB24, 68.34) places him as a low RB2 or flex. He could prove to be a risk worth taking, especially in PPR formats, provided he can put the lost 2013 season behind him.
Editor's note: Things are often never as great as we think they may be and never as bad. This outlook consolidates my opinion of Rice. It can't be understated how poor the Ravens' offensive line performed in 2013. A run-oriented team, which was once able to impose its will, was forced to pass more often despite their inability to fully replace the departed Anquan Boldin and an injured Dennis Pitta. So what does this have to do with Rice? As his teammates improve and the offense rediscovers its balance under Kubiak, Rice should rebound once he's back in the starting lineup. Unfortunately, his ADP offers little wiggle room for value, especially if Rice is forced to miss four games. Maybe after the suspension is announced, his draft position will fall and offer more value to fantasy owners.
UPDATE: Rice will be suspended for the first two games of the 2014 season (much lighter punishment than most expected).