|By Rob Warner, Friday, September 12, 2014|
QB Joe Flacco - 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.
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).
RB Bernard Pierce - 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 Lorenzo Taliaferro - 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).
WR Torrey Smith - Solid/Safe Pick
A second round pick from the 2011 NFL Draft (No. 58 overall) posted a career-best season in 2013, finishing with 65 catches for 1,128 yards and four touchdowns. That collective performance ranked him as the 21st-best fantasy WR in his first season as Baltimore's No. 1 WR. His 1,100-plus yards was the first time a Raven hit that mark since Qadry Ismail in 1999. Improving a pedestrian catch rate (just 46-percent over the past two seasons) could take his fantasy value to the next level. He has averaged an impressive 17 yards per catch over his first three seasons and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak has a solid track record of getting elite production from his No. 1 wide receiver (Andre Johnson in Houston). The younger member of the Ravens' Smith duo is entering a contract year and his ADP (WR27, 60.03) make him a solid WR3 who is drafted in late Round 5 or early Round 6. Many of the No. 1 receivers in this range of the draft are on bad teams; however, Flacco is probably the best (or at least generally reliable) QB throwing to these WRs out of the bunch (NYJ Eric Decker - Geno Smith, TEN Kendall Wright - Jake Locker, and MIA Mike Wallace - Ryan Tannehill).
Editor's note: In order for Smith to really take the next step in his development, he must be able to contribute more as a possession receiver and not almost solely as a deep threat. While his speed and ability to stretch the field serve a great purpose, the Ravens lacked the No. 2 or 3 receivers to maximize this strategy last season. Steve Smith will be tasked to work the short and intermediate routes and find the open areas in coverage. (Torrey) Smith does provide some upside too because if he can improve on his aforementioned catch rate, his numbers could enjoy a serious uptick.
WR Steve Smith - Quality Backup
The diminutive 35-year-old signed a three-year, $10.5 million contract to join the Ravens as they've been in search of a viable compliment receiver for Torrey Smith. S. Smith had to endure bracket and double-coverages for many seasons as the Panthers No. 1 receiver. The University of Utah alum has topped 1,000 yards in seven seasons (most recently in 2012 when he hauled in 73 balls for 1,174 yards and four TDs). His 2013 season was one of his worst, as Smith had 64 catches for 745 yards (50 YPG). He'll now become the second or third option (possibly seeing fewer targets than T. Smith and Dennis Pitta) in Baltimore's passing game. S. Smith's ADP (WR69, 174.12) makes him an obvious afterthought for most fantasy owners. He can be had in the final rounds practically uncontested.
Editor's note: This guy is a grinder. He was forced to practically carry Carolina's passing game for years. Now defenses can't focus on him and he will find open holes in the wake of T. Smith's deep routes and run drag routes next to Pitta. Even the faintest of imaginations will find a way to use S. Smith creatively. There's just no way of knowing, until we see it, how the Ravens will use him and how effective he will be in that new role. Well worth a final round flier as your WR6.
WR Marlon Brown - Deep-league Only
Marlon Brown finished second on the team in targets in 2013. Unfortunately, he will be hard pressed to repeat those numbers with the signing of Steve Smith and return of Dennis Pitta in the starting lineup. This undrafted rookie from Georgia tied a rookie franchise record with seven TDs, while hauling in 49 catches for 524 yards (37 YPG). He's penciled in as the Ravens' No. 3 WR entering training camp, but Gary Kubiak's reliance on two-TE sets is concerning. Brown has a very small amount of upside. It just may need to wait until Smith is gone or until Brown can flat-out play up to his skill set. There just isn't likely to be enough passing offense to keep Brown in the mix on a weekly basis.
WR Jacoby Jones - Low Potential
The Dancing with the Stars talent spent the first five years of his career in Houston and reunites with new OC Gary Kubiak. Jones is a solid special teamer, although his contributions and fantasy relevance have been limited. Jones has never had more than 600 yards receiving and only once topped three touchdowns in a season (caught six touchdowns in 2009). During his two seasons in Baltimore, he's averaged 33 catches for 430 yards. Jones is only fantasy relevant in leagues that reward special-teams yardage handsomely (ranked sixth in kick return yardage last season with 892 yards --28.8 yards per return).
TE Dennis Pitta - Solid/Safe Pick
This 29-year-old is coming off an injury-plagued 2013 season (hip surgery) that limited him to just 20 catches for 169 yards over four games. Provided he doesn't suffer any setbacks, he's a player to target thanks to being a Flacco favorite in the red zone. Also, new OC Gary Kubiak's system loves tight ends and will maximize his talents. Just look at the numbers put up year-to-year by Owen Daniels in Houston (averaged 62 catches per season during his four years in Houston where he played at least 15 games). In 2012, Pitta had his best season: hauling in 61 receptions for 669 yards and seven touchdowns (finished as the seventh best fantasy TE in standard leagues). He should be a better target in PPR leagues, but remains a solid TE1 in standard formats as well (despite the presence of Daniels, who will make for a great second TE). Pitta will likely finish as the second-leading Ravens pass-catcher to Torrey Smith.
Editor's note: Pitta's ADP (TE8, 90.61) is right where it should be. This means you could draft three RBs, three WRs, a QB and then a TE like Pitta in Round 8. Nothing wrong at all with a roster like that after eight rounds. He could be a Top 5 TE and therefore outperform his draft stock; however, the Ravens must prove they can pass-protect again and operate more competently offensively.
UPDATE: Flacco's security blanket has declared himself 100% and is expected to split out wide in Kubiak's TE friendly system making him a play to target for those that miss out on the top five tight ends.
TE Owen Daniels - Over the Hill (decreased production)
The 31-year-old joins OC Gary Kubiak in Baltimore after spending his first eight NFL seasons in Houston. Much like Dennis Pitta, Daniels suffered through an injury-plagued 2013 season that limited him to just 24 catches for 252 yards with three touchdowns over five games. Baltimore figures to run many two-TE sets. Daniels' upside is very limited as the team's No. 2 TE. The occasional big game is inevitable. The one week you thought to give him a shot, he will catch two TDs, both of them combining for about 11 yards. More importantly though, Daniels has missed 26 games over his eight-year career, so he's probably best-suited for a more limited role to keep him healthy. Barring another injury to Pitta, Daniels isn't an option in leagues where you only need to start one TE.
PK Justin Tucker - Stud (low risk)
The second-year placekicker from the University of Texas finished fourth in fantasy points in 2013, hitting an insane 93-percent of his kicks (Ravens' franchise record 38 field goals made) including six of seven from 50-plus yards. He also set another franchise record with 140 points scored. Tucker has connected on 92-percent percent of his kicks (68-of-74) over his two seasons, including 10-of-11 from 50 and beyond. With the additions of Steve Smith and return of Dennis Pitta, the Ravens' offense should improve with their red zone efficiency. This could result in reduced FG attempts with a slight increase in extra points. Given Tucker's kicking prowess, he will remain a potential Top 5 fantasy kicker because of his big leg and accuracy. He is well-worth drafting when it comes time to draft a kicker.
Baltimore - Solid/Safe Pick
The core of the Ravens defense is getting up there in years: Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil, Terrell Suggs, Chris Canty and Daryl Smith are all at least 30 years old. The 2014 NFL Draft brings another wave of a youth movement with the additions of first-round pick linebacker C.J. Mosley, defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan and safety Terrence Brooks. In 2013, the Baltimore defense ranked 11th against the run and 12th against the pass, yet their fantasy production was pedestrian as they finished with the seventh-lowest fantasy points. Baltimore's DST had just one defensive touchdown and one kick return touchdown from Jacoby Jones. The Ravens' defensive unit allowed 22 PPG and did register 40 sacks and 16 interceptions.They will at least be useful when the matchup is favorable as they teeter between DST1 and DST2 status.