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Fantasy football draft strategy 2013: Why Ray Rice should be considered a top 3 PPR running back

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE

Ray Rice has been slighted a bit heading into 2013. He's being drafted on the back end of the first round, but he's a quality grab for anyone that isn't adding Adrian Peterson to their fantasy roster.

Ray Rice is still being drafted in the first round of fantasy football drafts, but I've notice over the past several weeks that he's lucky to even sniff a top five consideration on both rankings and draft picks. Rice ended the 2012 season with 1,621 all-purpose yards, 61 receptions, and ten touchdowns. It was Rice's fourth consecutive season surpassing 1,100 rushing yards, and he finished as a top-5 PPR running back. On average, Ray Rice is the seventh player being drafted in mock drafts around the country.

And I have no idea why.

Even though being taken in the top ten still comes with high regard in the world of fantasy football, Rice being on the back end of the first round is a head-scratcher to me. I've heard every excuse you can imagine from Rice doubters. I've been told Rice is too old to be considered a top-5 back -- he's 26. I've been told Bernard Pierce will steal his touches in 2013 -- Good! Keep those legs fresh! I've even been told that Rice is going to inevitably get hurt this season - A projection that no one can really make, especially with a relatively durable player in Ray Rice.

I've heard a lot of reasons why Ray Rice shouldn't be in the discussion as a top three PPR running back, and I beg to differ. Here are a few reasons why Rice should be considered the moment Adrian Peterson is taken off of your draft board:

The Ravens paid Ray Rice for a reason

It may seem like a shallow assessment, but the fact is that the Ravens didn't agree to a 5-year $40 million deal with Rice in hopes that he'd regress just one year after the deal was made.  Rice deservedly gets the benefit of the doubt in Baltimore, and it would take a significant regression from the young running back in order for the Ravens to scale back his workload enough to make a dent in his fantasy production this season.

The Ravens re-signed Vonta Leach

Fullback Vonta Leach was coming off a Pro Bowl season when joining the Ravens in 2011. His first season with the Ravens happened to result in a career high in nearly every statistical category for Rice. His return to Baltimore gives every indication that the Ravens plan on running the ball often this season. Leach spent the summer of 2013 making rounds with various suitors that included the New York Giants and the Miami Dolphins. News broke in late July that the Ravens re-signed Leach conveniently after an injury to tight end Dennis Pitta that's presumed to be season-ending - which brings me to my next point...

Rice is a powerful weapon on a team being stripped of weapons

Anquan Boldin, the Ravens leading receiver of both catches and yards in 2012, was traded to the 49ers for a sixth-round pick and presumably some used VHS tapes from Jim Harbaugh. Dennis Pitta, second both in receptions and touchdowns on the Ravens roster, has a hip injury that could keep him off the field for 2013. As talented as wide receiver Torrey Smith is, the second-year receiver still hasn't cracked 900 receiving yards and will be frequently blanketed by opposing defenses. The Baltimore offense will rely heavily on its run game. With Pitta and Boldin out of the picture, that leaves 36 percent of the team's red-zone targets available to anyone that's going to step up on the team. Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell will be sure to have Rice continue to play a factor in the red zone. The offense will likely run through Ray Rice for most of 2013.

Bernard Pierce isn't the threat to Rice that many think he is

Smart fantasy football managers know that ranking players is about balancing the future and the past appropriately. We want to look ahead and project a player's value for the coming year, first and foremost. Out with the old and in with the new. Bernard Pierce may be new and exciting, but Rice isn't "the old" just yet.

For several years now, Rice has been supported by the old. In 2009 and 2010, Willis McGahee was given around 100 rushing attempts each year. Ricky Williams had 108 rushing attempts in 2011, and Ray Rice hit a career high across the board that year; Bernard Pierce was given the same amount of rushing attempts in 2012. But keep in mind that we're talking about PPR value here, and a significant portion of a player's value in PPR leagues lies in his receptions. Pierce was targeted by Flacco 11 times in 2012. Ray Rice was targeted 81 times. Additionally, Rice led the Ravens in red-zone targets last season. Even if Pierce is given more opportunities near the end zone, it's hard to fathom a significant dent in Rice's numbers as he continues to be the trusted back in the passing game.

Pierce's value should be weighed more by how much help the Ravens need offensively. Baltimore will need their backfield to carry a heavy workload, and Pierce is simply another talented back to add to production, not strip Rice of his work.

The first round of your fantasy draft is often a matter of personal preference, especially during the first five picks. Rice is a running back with a high floor of production regardless of the presence of Pierce in the backfield. C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, or Jamaal Charles are flashy running backs that will ignite your roster on any given week. Rice is a back that will offer a steady dose of high scoring on a consistent basis. When I'm drafting in the first round, I'm looking for consistency and a high level of production - Rice meets that criteria. If Adrian Peterson is off the board, at least consider Ray Rice. If Rice falls to you later in the first round, I wouldn't hesitate to draft him and feel great about his value.

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