by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)
We all know that Ray Rice could face suspension to open the 2014 season, though the length of that suspension remains a mystery (the assumption appears to be that he’s going to miss between 2 to 4 games). Regardless, any time missed is going to open the door for Bernard Pierce to potentially emerge and take hold of the Ravens’ starting running back job. With Rice banged up and struggling Pierce was in a similar spot in 2013, yet failed miserably to grab hold of his opportunity:
436 yards (2.9 yards per carry)
That represented a massive step backwards from his rookie season (4.9 yards per carry), so we can’t just write him off based on his struggles. The team had no running game to speak of in general last season, so the problems ran a lot deeper than just Pierce. The team took steps to try and improve in that regard, no matter who is considered the “lead” back, with the addition of Gary Kubiak as offensive coordinator.
As Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun (click here for the article) pointed out after the hiring, Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme didn’t just help create Arian Foster. During his time in Denver it helped to get running backs like Orlandis Gary and Reuben Droughns to 1,000+ yard seasons. You can easily argue that Pierce has more talent than either of those running backs.
His style certainly should help in that type of system. Prior to being drafted NFL.com (click here for the full scouting report) described him by saying:
“Pierce is an upright, one-cut runner who has a good feel for working between the tackles. He is able to get a natural lean to cut up and avoid trash at the point of attack, and does a good job of bracing for contact to deliver blows. He is a natural mover in short areas who is capable of being productive in the right scheme. He can elude in space and has a feel for getting to daylight.”
He owned a pair of 1,000 yard seasons while at Temple and was a touchdown monster. Including 27 TD in his final season he racked up 53 rushing TD in three seasons.
Pierce underwent shoulder surgery this offseason, though he’s expected to be fine for the start of training camp, and also is clearly the best back on the roster outside of Rice (the depth chart includes Justin Forsett and Lorenzo Taliaferro). Does that mean that he is a lock to put up big numbers, even in Rice’s absence?
Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun (click here for the article) recently reported:
“He’s played in all 32 regular-season games since the Ravens picked him in the third round out of Temple in the 2012 draft. However, he’s had more than 10 carries in just six of those games and he’s also struggled in a couple of key areas for an every-down back – blitz pick up and catching the ball out of the backfield. Pierce has 27 receptions in two seasons.”
Those were the same questions facing Pierce upon being drafted, so the fact that he hasn’t been able to answer them in two seasons is a major concern. Of course there are few true every down backs in the NFL today, but his inability to emerge as one is going to limit his potential overall. That’s because, despite his issues, Rice still holds that potential appeal.
Unless Pierce produces quickly, Rice could easily waltz back into the starting job once cleared and be the benefactor of the new system. Considering the early season, it’s easy to imagine:
- Week 1 – vs. Cincinnati (5th fewest rushing yards per game, 96.5)
- Week 2 – vs. Pittsburgh (21st fewest rushing yards per game, 115.6)
- Week 3 – at Cleveland (18th fewest rushing yards per game, 111.3)
- Week 4 – vs. Carolina (2nd fewest rushing yards per game, 86.9)
It’ll be interesting to see how the Ravens attack these defenses, but even if Rice were to miss the first four games it’s against two of the top five rushing defenses from a year ago. The bottom line is that Pierce is hardly a guarantee to produce big numbers early on, based on the matchups and the likelihood that he shares touches.
In regards to Rice, the suspension is going to send him spiraling down draft boards. That suddenly makes him appear to be a tremendous value pick, though that’s a story for another day.
Sources – ESPN, NFL.com Baltimore Sun
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Make sure to check out all of our 2014 rankings: