Bernard Pierce Is Really Inefficient, But It May Not Matter for the Ravens
Opportunity is, and always has been in almost any field, the key to success. A person, no matter how talented, smart, or gifted, can not and will not reach his or her maximum potential without the opportunity to do so.
In many cases, talent, intelligence, and ability will open the doors to opportunity. Other times, opportunity just comes in the form of plain dumb luck.
Perhaps no player has fallen into that luck side more this year more than the Ravens' running back Bernard Pierce. With the well-documented Ray Rice cut, the Ravens needed someone to hand the ball to. And by being at the right place at the right time, Bernard Pierce has had a ton of opportunity to succeed these first two weeks, especially in Week 2 where his 22 carries tied him for fifth-most in the league.
If Pierce is able to continue seeing 22 carries per game, he undoubtedly will have some value to fantasy football owners, despite his mediocre Week 2 performance. But the question is, should the Ravens be letting Pierce get all those touches?
Bernard Pierce is in his third year in the league, but has at least appeared in every game of his career. While we don't have a ton of history to go on, there's at least some evidence of what Pierce is. It's not very pretty.
Among all players with at least 120 carries in 2013 - a total of 40 players - Pierce ranked second to last in Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP), ahead of only Ray Rice. In fact, among all players with at least 120 carries in a season since 2000 - a total of 556 guys - Pierce's 2013 ranked 525th, one of the worst seasons in aggregate since 2000.
What makes these numbers even worse is that Rushing NEP is an aggregate statistic, meaning volume plays a big role. Last year on a per rush basis, Pierce ranked dead last among all running backs with at least 120 carries. In fact, since 2000, Pierce's Rushing NEP per rush would have put him in a four-way tie for 549th out of 556 total qualifying players.
To put it simply, while Rice's low NEP shows that this was indeed a Ravens problem last season (offensive line, scheme, etc.), Pierce still had one of the worst seasons that any player has had since 2000 at running back.
In an attempt to be fair to Pierce, I also took a look at 2012 numbers, when Pierce was a rookie. Because he only had 100 touches, his 2012 did not qualify for either study done in the previous two paragraphs. But in 2012, behind the same offensive line as Ray Rice, Pierce had a Rushing NEP per rush of -.07, while Rice's was .03. To put it another way: among all running backs in 2012 with at least 100 rushes, Pierce ranked tied for 27th out of 42 in Rushing NEP per rush, while Rice ranked 7th. Sure, Pierce was a rookie, but he's yet to be efficient on the NFL level.
This year Pierce looks to be along a similar trajectory. Through two weeks, among all players with at least 20 carries, Pierce ranks 30th out of 33 in Rushing NEP per rush, and 31st out of 33 in cumulative Rushing NEP. Again, this is a small sample size, and Pierce wasn't a huge factor in Week 1 (only 6 carries), but this seems to be sort of the norm for Pierce.
The problem the Ravens face is that there just might not be other options in lieu of Pierce. Right now, the other two running backs on the roster are Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro. The last time Forsett had over 100 carries in a season was 2010, and he's never in his career had as many carries as Pierce did in 2013. In that 2010 season, Forsett ranked 34 out of 45 in Rushing NEP per rush among all players with at least 100 carries that season. And remember, Forsett is now four years older - he has not seen more than 70 carries in a season since.
Taliaferro remains the greatest threat to significantly eat into Pierce's carries simply due to youth and ambiguity. A rookie from Coastal Carolina and a fourth-round pick in this past draft by the Ravens, Taliaferro had zero touches in Week 2, which can't be a positive sign for him. With that said, the talent ahead of him just is not the efficient carry-to-carry, and really has never been that great in aggregate. Pierce is still somewhat young, but if the 22-year-old Taliaferro can't get on the field for meaningful touches sometime soon, it probably speaks a lot more to how he looks in practice than how Pierce looks on the field.
So far from an efficiency standpoint, the Baltimore rushing game actually ranks pretty well. Our Adjusted Rushing NEP numbers on a per play basis have Baltimore in the top-10 in the league, in spite of the poor play from Pierce so far. I think you could start to see a shift, but fantasy owners should certainly be wary of the fact that, at least for now, Pierce is the guy in Baltimore. Given his play, that just may not last.