Fantasy football impact: Can the Ravens rebound after a down year?

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

A Super Bowl win and a quarterback's big contract cost the Ravens some payroll flexibility and skill in 2013. Can they bounce back in 2014? Who will be the team's best fantasy option?

In 2012, the Baltimore Ravens finished 16th in the NFL in total offense and 17th in total defense. It was a fine, if unspectacular performance, but it got them to the playoffs, which in turn got them a big batch of Super Bowl rings.

Of course, that season also led to the team having to pay quarterback Joe Flacco, which in turn led to the team having to shed salary elsewhere. That offseason, the Ravens shipped away several important parts of that championship team to get under the salary cap. While wide receiver Anquan Boldin was the only fantasy-relevant player shipped abroad, the departures included several big-name defensive players, plus fullback Vonta Leach and a handful of offensive linemen, meaning the team had fewer support staff for what offensive players did remain. And then tight end Dennis Pitta dislocated his hip in the preseason, missing virtually all of the season.

The end result is that a Ravens offense that had been mediocre in 2012 fell to 29th in total offense in 2013. The Ravens were 12th in total defense, to be fair, but the uptick didn't offset issues on the offensive side.

This chart shows the team's decrease in offensive production from 2012 to 2013.

Rushing Yards Per Carry TDs
2012 1901 4.3 17
2013 1328 3.1 7
Receiving Yards Per Reception TDs
2012 3996 12.0 22
2013 3914 10.8 19

The team had fewer receiving yards and way fewer rushing yards, was less successful per attempt in both categories and scored 13 fewer offensive touchdowns in 2013 as compared to 2012. Apparently, in a surprise to beat all surprises, losing a pile of good players can have an impact on production.

It didn't help matters that the team's star running back, Ray Rice, put up easily his worst season, and is now facing a likely suspension.

So this offseason, the team went another direction. It lost offensive skill players in tight end Ed Dickson (to Carolina) and wide receiver Tandon Doss (to Jacksonville), but replaced them with tight end Owen Daniels and wide receiver Steve Smith, who are, at the very least, much bigger names. Come draft time, Baltimore used its first few picks on the defense, but did draft one player each at the four offensive skill positions.

Baltimore also re-signed offensive tackle Eugene Monroe, who was acquired in a midseason trade last year, and traded for center Jeremy Zuttah. It also drafted another offensive lineman, John Urschel, who could play center or guard. Considering the struggles of the team's running game a year ago, bolstering the line can only be of benefit.

So then, the question becomes whether the skill upgrades (namely Smith and Daniels) will be enough to bring the offense back to its passable 2012 levels. Smith in particular isn't the receiver he once was. His receiving yards and yards per catch have fallen steadily since 2011, and even as the main WR focus of the Panthers last year he only scored four times.

Wide receiver

Just speaking as a fantasy writer here, but the Ravens are kind of jerks to have added a second Smith receiver to the team. It would be way easier to keep all the same-last-name guys separate. Big jerks.

Anyway, the team now has both Steve Smith and Torrey Smith, and while they are relative equals in terms of fame, Torrey stands to have significantly more value in 2014 than Steve. Torrey Smith went for a career-high 1,128 yards and four touchdowns a year ago. Interestingly, he averaged the exact same 17.4 yards per reception in 2013 that he did in 2012.

My takeaway from that is that Torrey Smith (See? I can't just say "Smith." Stupid Ravens.) wasn't particularly better than he was in 2012; he was just the Ravens' main option. When Anquan Boldin was in the fold, he was the team's possession receiver, gaining a few yards at a time and serving as Joe Flacco's safety blanket. Torrey Smith was the distance guy, the field-spreader. Without Boldin, Baltimore turned to Marlon Brown as its No. 2 receiver, and he wasn't the same. That meant that Smith had to carry more of the possession load, and as a natural deep threat it wasn't really the right role.

That's why Torrey Smith's fantasy production was wildly inconsistent a year ago. He topped 20 fantasy points in a game once, and reached double figures three other times, but also had three games of three or fewer points, and either six or seven fantasy points five times. Forcing him to stay close and not just run away from defenders -- serving as a "we need a first down" option for Flacco -- kept Smith from having consistent production.

Steve Smith isn't the receiver he once was, and he isn't the receiver Anquan Boldin is now, but he does offer a lot as a safety blanket at this point in his career. I expect the two Smiths to operate much like the team's top two receivers did in 2012, with Steve working the short routes often and Torrey burning defenders in ways that Steve once did.

Neither is likely to be dominant in fantasy because the Baltimore offense just doesn't work that way. Torrey Smith is a low-end WR2 or a high-end WR3 at this point. I'd take him in the mid-50s overall, and the early 20s among wide receivers. Steve Smith, meanwhile, is a name more than an asset. He's not a fantasy starter at this point in his career. He doesn't have the upside to fill a bench spot on a fantasy team, and doesn't have the reliability to fill a low-end starting role. He's probably in the mid-40s among wide receivers, and you wouldn't be wrong to take him there, but in that range in a draft, I'm more likely to choose upside.

The other Ravens receivers -- Marlon Brown, Jacoby Jones, etc. -- are more of the same as Smith in fantasy. They're roster fillers, and they don't have the upside to be much else.

Running back

This gets complicated, in several different ways. First off, both primary Ravens running backs, Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce, saw their yards per carry plummet in 2013, as noted above. Rice had averaged 4.5 YPC over his first five seasons before dropping to 3.1 in 2013; Pierce ran for 4.9 YPC in his 2012 rookie season, but only 2.9 last year. Rice entered the season as one of the top handful of running backs in fantasy, and ended it as largely unplayable.

If one running back sees his rate of production drop off like that, you might be able to chalk it up to physical deterioration. When two guys fall off at basically the same time, you look elsewhere. And, as I said earlier, the Ravens' offensive line was significantly worse last season than it had been in some time, as evidenced by the running backs' yards per carry, and the fact that quarterback Joe Flacco was sacked a career-high 48 times in 2013 (his previous high was 40 in 2010, and he averaged 33 sacks a year from 2011 through 2012).

Again, the team worked to bolster the O-line in the offseason. Theoretically, that would mean that the problems in the Baltimore running game were solved. Huzzah, let's all have a party! But of course, there are complications.

Even if you paint the rosiest picture possible about on-the-field Ray Rice, there is still the off-the-field stuff to consider. I won't rehash what happened here, because that's not what fantasy is for. If you want to read more, go here. Basically, the Ravens are likely to be without a suspended Rice for at least part of the season.

And then there's Pierce. Pierce has been a popular handcuff running back in both of his NFL seasons, and as I mentioned he ran for 4.9 yards per carry in his 2012 rookie campaign. It's tempting to write off his 2013 struggles and tab him as a 2014 sleeper play who will almost certainly start a few games and could be productive.

But when I look at Pierce, I see a back who has been inefficient throughout his career, except for a successful run or two. Pierce has had double-digit carries 11 times in his career, topping out at 24 carries in Week 3 of last season. In those 11 games, he has 156 carries for 618 yards, which comes out to fewer than 4.0 yards per carry. Take out a single 78-yard carry in 2012 (and no, you can't exactly do that, but he's shown little-to-no penchant for breaking off long runs in his career so I'm comfortable calling that single run an anomaly), and that average drops below 3.5. Basically, whenever Pierce has assumed a role resembling that of a feature back, he hasn't done much.

So I don't see Pierce as anything special, either fantasy-wise or in real football. The team also has Lorenzo Taliaferro, a fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina, who might be a passable fill-in, but is unlikely to offer much production.

Rice should be drafted as a high-end flex play in most leagues, though anyone who drafts him should be ready to receive anything from a high-end RB1 to a guy who gets suspended for half the year and loses his gig in the meantime. Once one of fantasy football's safest bets, Rice is suddenly the definition of high risk, high reward. As for Pierce, I'm seeing him ranked in the top 100 overall in some places, and I just don't understand why. He'd be 150 or lower for me. For however long Rice is out, sure, maybe Pierce has a couple of viable fantasy outings due to a sheer quantity of touches, but overall he's not someone I want to count on. Taliaferro has a higher upside than Pierce, but a significantly lower floor. I wouldn't bother with him unless you're in a super deep league.

Quarterback

Joe Flacco is entering his seventh year in the NFL. He has a Super Bowl ring, and that's awesome, but he has never reached 4,000 yards passing in a season, eclipsed 25 passing touchdowns or made a Pro Bowl. He's a fine quarterback, probably even a good one. However, he's not an "elite" quarterback, at least not statistically, and certainly not fantasy-wise.

it wasn't inspiring to see a 28-year-old quarterback put up his worst numbers off a Super Bowl season that earned him a mega-contract.

In a lot of ways, 2013 was Flacco's worst season. While his 3,912 passing yards were a career high, his 22 interceptions were 10 more than he'd ever thrown in a season, and his 73.1 passer rating was 13.2 below what had been his career rating entering the year. The drop in efficiency is, at least in part, due to the struggles of the offensive line. Still, it wasn't inspiring to see a 28-year-old quarterback put up his worst numbers off a Super Bowl season that earned him a mega-contract.

Flacco has the benefit of a couple new weapons in Steve Smith and Owen Daniels. Still, Flacco has only finished as a top-10 fantasy quarterback once in his career, and that was in 2010 when he was 10th. He hasn't been better than 14th otherwise. In a two-quarterback league, he's a low-end QB2, and his lack of upside means there's really no reason to draft him as anything more. I'd take Flacco around No. 20 among quarterbacks.

Tight end

Dennis Pitta was supposed to be the Ravens' key to 2013 -- the new Anquan Boldin, the guy who could handle the short stuff while Torrey Smith ran around like a bunny. But Pitta's dislocated hip cost him most of the season and put much of that burden on Ed Dickson and Dallas Clark, who were lesser options.

Those two are both gone for 2014, leaving a healthy Pitta and the newly acquired Owen Daniels. Pitta, 28, hadn't missed a game since 2010 before the hip problem, while Daniels, 31 years old and entering his ninth season, hasn't played a full 16 games since 2008. At present, the team is set to rely on Pitta, making Daniels an extra piece.

By all accounts, Pitta is back to full health entering 2014. Assuming that's true, he's comfortably among the back half of the TE1s. I'd take him in the 80s overall, and right around other tight ends like Greg Olsen and Jordan Reed.

Daniels, in his first year away from Houston, is no longer an upper-echelon tight end or even, frankly, a fantasy-relevant one. If Pitta gets hurt, I will revisit this stance, but for now, Daniels is only draftable late as a "let's see what happens" guy.

Miss out on any of the team pieces so far? Catch up here:
AFC EAST NFC EAST
Buffalo Bills Dallas Cowboys
Miami Dolphins New York Giants
New England Patriots Philadelphia Eagles
New York Jets Washington Redskins
AFC NORTH NFC NORTH
Baltimore Ravens (Greetings)
Chicago Bears
Cincinnati Bengals Detroit Lions
Cleveland Browns Green Bay Packers
Pittsburgh Steelers Minnesota Vikings
AFC SOUTH NFC SOUTH
Houston Texans Atlanta Falcons
Indianapolis Colts Carolina Panthers
Jacksonville Jaguars New Orleans Saints
Tennessee Titans Tampa Bay Buccaneers
AFC WEST NFC WEST
Denver Broncos Arizona Cardinals
Kansas City Chiefs San Francisco 49ers
Oakland Raiders Seattle Seahawks
San Diego Chargers St. Louis Rams

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