Fantasy football focus: Will Ravens be great buys or busts?
Winning the Super Bowl can be both a blessing and a curse. The spoils are obvious, but the curses are more subtle.
The New York Giants, Super Bowl XLVI champions, are a prime example: Their players didn't fare so well for fantasy teams the season following their victory. Eli Manning went from the sixth-best fantasy quarterback in 2011 to the 14th last year, meaning he wasn't worth starting in most leagues after his Giants won the Super Bowl. His receivers dropped from fourth (Victor Cruz) and 11th (Hakeem Nicks) to 13th and 54th, respectively. Ahmad Bradshaw stayed relatively steady, but he had to cope with the arrival of David Wilson, who might have taken a huge chunk of production had he not fumbled on the first carry of his career.
The Ravens will try to buck this trend, but chances are that modest expectations will make the Ravens' players great buys, not busts, this upcoming fantasy season.
Keep in mind the Ravens will have to do this without veteran receiver Anquan Boldin (traded to San Francisco) and with a rebuilt defense that lost its heart (linebacker Ray Lewis to retirement) and soul (safety Ed Reed to Houston via free agency). Also gone from the defense are safety Bernard Pollard (signed with the Tennessee), linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami), linebacker Paul Kruger (signed with Cleveland) and corner Cary Williams (signed with Philadelphia).
Now the Ravens have to replace those parts in the salary-cap era after giving Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco the richest deal in NFL history ($20.1 million per year, including $52 million guaranteed). Oh, and on top of that, they pick last in the NFL draft this April.
I'm scheduled to speak to Rice, Boldin and Torrey Smith this Friday in Palm Beach, Fla., as part of the ninth annual Q-Fest, a charity weekend hosted by Boldin, a Pahokee, Fla., native. If you have a fantasy football question you're eager to have Boldin, Rice or Smith answer, pass it along in the comments area below or reach out via Twitter. If the answer is noteworthy, we'll print it in this space next week along with your name.
In the meantime, here is how we should view the Ravens' notable fantasy options coming off their Super Bowl victory:
Flacco is a curious case, because, unlike the Giants' Manning, Flacco hasn't been a consistent starting-caliber quarterback for fantasy. In his age-27 season, he finished one spot behind Manning, 15th among quarterbacks -- the same spot Flacco finished in 2011. The highest Flacco's ever finished was 12th in 2010, when he had Boldin and veteran Derek Mason both with 100-plus targets, 800-plus yards and seven TDs apiece. He also had Todd Heap as the 14th-ranked tight end.
Now, Flacco has just Smith, return specialist Jacoby Jones and Tandon Doss among his wide receivers. It makes Smith, his tight ends and back all that more important in the passing game. He cannot be relied upon as a starter, though.
We tentatively rank Flacco just 16th among quarterbacks, ostensibly a fantasy backup, behind Ben Roethlisberger (13th), Manning (14th) and Andy Dalton (15th). Those guys have far more proven threats to target.
Owners will have to make a decision on Ray Rice in the first half of round one. Rice was the top-scoring fantasy running back in 2011 -- the No. 1 player if you don't pick a quarterback in the first round -- but dropped to a modest sixth-best running back last year in standard scoring leagues.
Rice had his lowest rushing total in his four seasons as a full-time starter last year, but the silver lining is that he was fresh for the postseason. However his 92 added postseason touches kept him on par with his usage in past years.
No. 27 is still just 26, though, so we have to keep him in the conversation of the best running backs in fantasy, even if Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch might look slightly more promising. The Ravens have managed Rice's workload fairly well thus far in his career, much to the dismay of his fantasy owners at times.
It would not be out of the realm of possibility for Rice to post the best season of his career, now that he is entering his physical peak. Peterson nearly broke Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record at age 27. Rice might be good for 300 carries for 1,500 yards, 15 rushing touchdowns, 65 receptions, 550 yards receiving and another couple scores. Those numbers would make him the best pick among the top five.
Smith's had his moments at times but his numbers as a sophomore (49 catches for 855 yards and eight touchdowns) were surprisingly on par with his rookie year (50/841/7). They should have been appreciably better. But if you subscribe the third-year WR breakthrough strategy in fantasy football, Smith's time is now in 2013.
"Torrey Smith knows exactly what needs to be done now," Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome told the Pro Football Post this winter. "He had two years with Anquan. He's been mentored by him."
You have to figure the Ravens draft an outside weapon to take the pressure off Smith, particularly since they cannot afford adding a veteran. Regardless, Smith will assume the go-to wide receiver role that was long held by Boldin. Smith, who we probably are underrating as the 24th overall WR in early rankings, is capable of busting out for 80 catches for 1,200 yards and 12 TDs. That is top 10, if not top five, production. He is this writer's pick for the breakthrough receiver of the year. He is going to be told this Friday.
The 27-year-old Pitta enjoyed his breakthrough in his third year last season, racking up 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He put a good distance between himself and now backup tight end Ed Dickson (25), who was also in his third season.
Pitta warrants being ranked among the top 10 fantasy tight ends, especially with the relative lack of downfield targets Flacco has to choose from right now. If not for the return of veteran Tony Gonzalez, you might have been able to make a case Pitta should be top-five tight endselection. Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Jason Witten, Aaron Hernandez and Gonzalez still have more juice, though.
Usually kickers are a fantasy afterthought, but Tucker was so remarkably good as a rookie (30-for-33 in field goal attempts), he deserves to be in the elite tier. Because of the potency of the Patriots, Falcons and Broncos offenses -- due to their elite-tier QBs -- you might make a case that Stephen Gostkowski, Matt Bryant and Matt Prater are the only kickers you should pick before Tucker.
The players named above are big losses, but they also made the Ravens defense overrated in fantasy. Now, the expectations are lowered and the Ravens defense/special teams sits a modest 14th in our early rankings. We might need to move it up.
This defense has been great, if not legendary, for years, and it stands to be better in 2013 than it was in 2012, because of the influx of younger talent. Sure, Ed Reed is going to make the Houston Texans defense one of the first few off the board, but the players the Ravens were able to acquire to fill the holes are intriguing.
Elvis Dumervil and his 11 sacks were signed from the Broncos. Michel Huff (30) comes over from Oakland. DTs Chris Canty (from the Giants) and Marcus Spears (from the Cowboys) are name brands to add depth to the defensive line, and there are reports the Ravens will be signing recently released former early first-round pick Rolando McClain. You could just see McClain, an Alabama product, finding himself as he's supported by that collection of talent in Baltimore.
All of this fails to mention that Terrell Suggs (torn Achilles') will be healthy for the start of the season this time around. The Ravens are going to be a great value as a backup D/ST. So good, that unit is going to return to its fantasy-starter-caliber level.
For more information on Boldin's charity and the 9th Annual Q-Fest Weekend, go to www.q81.org.