Ray Rice Is Cut: What Happens Now for the Baltimore Ravens?

Ray Rice is no longer a Raven, and that could mean big things for one rookie running back.

My opinion on the Ray Rice situation is just like everyone else’s. Why did he only get two games? Why has the NFL punished players so idiotically? Why does Ray Rice still have a job?

Well, that last question is at least under control now.

With Rice [finally] out of the picture in Baltimore, what does the backfield look like, and what can we expect given their Week 1 performance?

Any Rice Replacements?

Last month, we wrote about why Ray Rice doesn’t just suck off the field, but he does on the field as well. After he had what was a solid career, Rice took a massive step backwards a season ago behind an offensive line that couldn’t create any space. Rice finished the season as the worst running back in the entire NFL according to our Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, playing over 38 points below expectation. It was the 13th worst running back season we’ve seen since the year 2000.

The reason you can pinpoint the offensive line as a big reason for this was because teammate Bernard Pierce was the second-worst running back in terms of Rushing NEP a year ago, and was the worst on a per touch basis. Had Pierce performed well, perhaps we’d say it was a Rice problem.

But this is a big reason the Ravens brought in offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak over the offseason – to make this running game Ravens-like once again. Kubiak has a history running a zone-blocking scheme, making stars out of nobodys. Remember Steve Slaton? He broke out under Kubiak. Arian Foster? Yeah, that was Kubiak, too.

Entering Week 1, there was some optimism around the Ravens running game, despite Rice sitting out. Bernard Pierce had another shot at getting touches, and Justin Forsett, who once played under Kubiak, would enter the mix as well.

But they faced a tough Bengals defense and got away from the run. In the most significant way imaginable, actually. Joe Flacco threw 62 passes, while the Ravens pair of backs – Forsett and Pierce – ran just 17 times.

Last year, the Ravens ran the ball fewer times than we’ve seen from a squad out of Baltimore. They ended with a pass-to-run ratio of 1.58, which was 0.36 points higher than any other average they posted since 2000. People may not realize this, but only Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady dropped back to pass more times than Joe Flacco last year. They were a pass-heavy team, and after finishing as our 27th-ranked offense when adjusted for strength of schedule, that clearly wasn’t the way to win.

Joe Flacco’s not going to throw 60 times again this year, and we should expect a better balance with their running game. That means more opportunity for running backs on a now Rice-less Ravens team, as Rice toted the rock 214 times last year.

Who will get the call? Well, Bernard Pierce was benched in yesterday’s contest after fumbling the football. Then the aforementioned Forsett entered and saw a 6.4 yards per carry average with a touchdown, significantly better than Pierce’s 2.3 average.

Pierce has been wildly ineffective since entering the league two years ago, which makes this situation so interesting. In terms of Success Rate, which measures the percentage of plays that contribute positively towards a team and player's Net Expected Points score, Pierce’s 33.7% career average would have placed him fifth from the bottom among 100-plus attempt running backs a season ago. In other words, among relatively high-volume running backs, Pierce has ranked in about the 10th percentile when it comes to gaining positive plays for his team over the first two-plus years of his career.

Again, offensive line drives this conversation as well, but it’s not a good place to be. He’s essentially performed like Trent Richardson.

Justin Forsett, who many believe will get the start on Thursday against the Steelers, has never carried the ball more than 118 times in a single season. He also has just nine games with 10 or more carries. When he did see volume (114 in 2009 and 118 in 2010), however, he wasn’t wildly ineffective. Especially in 2009, where his Success Rate was actually eighth best in the entire NFL among 100-plus carry backs.

But again, Forsett is somewhat of a journeyman running back who's 28 years old. Do the Ravens want to trust him carrying the ball 200 or more times this season?

Enter Lorenzo Taliaferro.

As noted last week in my 15 Fantasy Football Transactions article, I had hoped Taliaferro would be more involved in Week 1. He wasn't, but it would only make sense for the Ravens' long-term plan to involve him in some way, shape or form. Considering Pierce's two-year ineffective sample combined with Forsett's lack of general talent, Taliaferro could easily be the guy to replace Ray Rice.

In the preseason, Taliaferro led all NFL running backs in carries. By a pretty big gap, too. He had 65 to Forsett's 16 and Pierce's 21, and posted a similar yards per carry average to the two. That coming, of course, as a rookie.

Using our READ algorithm - which looks at combine measurables and team placement to try and project how a player would perform if given a chance to start - if Taliaferro were to be the top back for Baltimore this year, his top comparable season is Matt Forte's rookie campaign. That year - 2008 - Forte posted 1,715 total yards and was the fourth-best running back in fantasy football. That's not bad company.

In the short term, we should expect a committee approach in Baltimore as they sort things out, with general week-to-week unpredictability. But if you're looking to find upside in your fantasy football league, Taliaferro may be the man to target. After all, this is Gary Kubiak we're talking about.