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2014 Fantasy Outlooks: Baltimore Ravens

Senior Fantasy Writer
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Last year was the first time in John Harbaugh's six seasons as Ravens head coach that he did not lead his team to the playoffs. Moves were made this offseason to keep that from happening again, but it could be tough to pull off.

One of the biggest disappointments from 2013 was the play of Ray Rice. Overweight and hurting from a hip injury, Rice failed to get over 1,000 total yards for the first time since he was a rookie. Playing behind a beat up and beleaguered offensive line didn't help -- neither he nor teammate Bernard Pierce could get going at all. That forced Joe Flacco to make plays, which he didn't always do.

The Ravens didn't have the choice to stick to their offensive plan once Jim Caldwell left his post as the offensive coordinator to become the Lions' head coach. So Harbaugh hired Gary Kubiak, the former Texans head coach, to bring in his West Coast offensive scheme and zone-run game that proved to be successful in the past. The Ravens also made a splash signing veteran receiver Steve Smith and tight end Owen Daniels. Both additions bring a lot of experience to the offense as they try to move toward another playoff run.

But so much of the Baltimore offense will revolve around Rice. Though he has reportedly lost 15 pounds and has healed up, Rice got into hot water this offseason when he was arrested for allegedly hitting his wife inside an Atlantic City casino. The charge might get dropped after he and his wife entered an intervention program, but the NFL is expected to hand down a suspension. Without Rice, the Ravens just don't have the same kind of run game.

Expect Flacco to continue being a huge point of emphasis for the Ravens, which isn't as bad of a thing as last season considering the additions to the offense (a healthy Dennis Pitta helps a bunch, too). The defense also could be in line for a better year even after ranking in the Top 12 against the run and the pass, in part because of first-round pick C.J. Mosley anchoring the middle of the unit.

Top 24 receiver ... Torrey Smith

Some would argue Smith's breakout campaign came in 2013, but there's a chance he posts better Fantasy point production for the third consecutive time. This is because of the offense being installed, one in which the No. 1 receiver typically gets a slew of targets. Smith needs those because he's never had a high catch rate (below 50 percent each of the last two seasons) but might find the work easier because he might not get thrown at deep as often. Playing on the same field as Dennis Pitta and Steve Smith should help ease coverage a little bit, too. He's an acceptable No. 2 receiver to end up with.

Bounce-back coming ... Dennis Pitta

Same story as Smith -- we already know Pitta's name and what he can do, but there's potential for a career year. How often in Houston did we see tight ends get involved, particularly near the goal line? Over the last three seasons, tight ends in Kubiak's offense caught 31 of 61 possible passing touchdowns (50.8 pct.). Pitta won't be the only guy to end up spiking the ball on the turf because Owen Daniels will play a bunch, but after proving to be Flacco's security blanket down the stretch in 2012 and again late in 2013, he's considered a candidate to top the 61 catches for 669 yards and seven scores he had in '12. Dial up Pitta as a Top 10 tight end with a pick in Round 7 or 8, probably soon after Jason Witten gets taken.

Overrated ... Ravens DST

2013 Touches Leaders
786 total touches
Ray Rice 272 (214 car., 58 rec.) 34.6%
Bernard Pierce 172 (152 car., 20 rec.) 21.9%
Torrey Smith 65 rec. 8.3%
Marlon Brown 50 (49 rec., 1 car.) 6.4%
All others 227 28.9%

A lot of Fantasy owners will take the Ravens DST because the unit has a repuation. Is perception reality? Last year, this team added pass rusher Elvis Dumervil and did finish as a Top 12 unit against the run and the pass, but still rated poorly for Fantasy, finishing tied for 14th with two other DSTs. Worse yet, they were inconsistent, posting 13-plus Fantasy points just four times in 16 games. On the schedule this season: Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck, Philip Rivers, Cam Newton and of course two games each with the improved Bengals and Steelers offenses, including both in the first two weeks of the year. Playmakers Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata, Chris Canty, Daryl Smith and Dumervil all on the wrong side of 30, so there's a chance this defense could struggle to produce big Fantasy totals against some tough opponents.

Schedule analysis

The Ravens open the year playing the Bengals and Steelers at home over a five-day span. That's right, they landed the first Thursday Night Football game (post-Week 1) of the season. They also caught a brutal stretch where they play four road games in five weeks with a homer against the Falcons in the middle (at Indy, at Tampa Bay, vs. Atlanta, at Cincy, at Pittsburgh). Things do open up in the second half of the season, especially the last four weeks at Miami, vs, Jacksonville, at Houston and vs. Cleveland in Week 17. There aren't a lot of stingy run defenses expected along the way -- the Steelers shouldn't be dominant nor should the Bengals or Texans -- but there aren't a lot of layups on the slate either.

Training camp battles

Who's the backup running back? It would only make sense that Bernard Pierce reclaims his spot as the backup rusher to Ray Rice. Veteran Justin Forsett and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro will try to put some pressure on Pierce, but unless the team finds another back, expect Pierce to win the job by default. And that means he could begin the year as the team's starter if Rice is suspended.

Is Marlon Brown history? The receiver was a bright spot for the Ravens last year, catching 49 of 81 targets for 524 yards and seven touchdowns. The addition of Steve Smith definitely pushes Brown off the field in two-receiver sets and Jacoby Jones will have a strong case to serve as the third receiver. Jones not only re-upped with the Ravens this offseason, he's reuniting with Kubiak, who was his head coach in Houston. He knows what will be asked of him while Brown will have to adjust to the new system. It'll take an injury to someone else for Brown to come anywhere close to his rookie year numbers.

How much playing time will Owen Daniels earn, and will it impact Dennis Pitta? We know that tight ends are a big part of Kubiak's offense, and we know that Daniels has spent most of his career playing in that offense. But he's 31 years old and has missed chunks of two of his last four seasons (and at least one game every season). If he's a supplemental player then Fantasy owners know to pass on him, but even if he's cast as such, will it mean targets taken away from Pitta? Unfortunately, we might not get our answer until the season starts and we see how often the Ravens use two-tight end formations. It might be frequently.

Bold prediction

Any investment in the Ravens run game on Draft Day will be a headache. It is believed that Rice will serve a suspension for his actions in a domestic violence incident, which will cost him the very start of the season. Then when he comes back there won't be any guarantee that he'll be as effective as he was in 2012 or earlier. A similar guarantee can be said for the offensive line, which underwent minimal changes personnel-wise but had to learn a new blocking system. That's a strike against anyone running the ball for Baltimore.

There isn't a good reason to target Rice with a Top 50 pick on Draft Day. Maybe that changes if he impresses in training camp and the preseason. And maybe it'll change if there isn't a suspension after all. But by selecting Rice, a Fantasy owner has to make a commitment to the Ravens run game. It means having to spend a late pick on his backup, Bernard Pierce, who himself wasn't effective last year either and is coming off of shoulder surgery. And it might turn out that rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro ends up having a decent role in the offense. Are you going to spend a roster spot on him and Pierce if you draft Rice?! What a mess. C.J. Spiller, Toby Gerhart and Ben Tate will all be better Fantasy choices than Rice on Draft Day.

Injury report: Bernard Pierce (shoulder), questionable for start of training camp. ... Kelechi Osemele (back), probable for start of training camp. ... Michael Campanaro (hamstring), probable for start of training camp. ... Kapron Lewis-Moore (knee), probable for start of training camp.

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Player News
QB struggles begin to impact Cardinals DST
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:13 am ET) The Cardinals DST scored just one Fantasy point in standard CBSSports.com leagues Week 16 against Seattle, interrupting a stretch of 10 games in which it averaged 15.1, and the Cardinals' offensive woes may have had something to do with it.

Specifically, they've been unable to find a decent quarterback since losing Carson Palmer to injury in Week 10. Backup Drew Stanton at least mounted some kind of threat, but with him sidelined by a sprained knee in Week 16, the Cardinals had to turn to third-stringer Ryan Lindley. He turned the ball over twice without once leading his team into the end zone, completing less than half of his passes in the process.

The quick trips back to the sideline gave the Seahawks more chances to pile up points and yards, and they did, finishing with 35 and 596. Only one other time have the Cardinals allowed more than 30 points in a game, and the 596 yards were a season high. Worse yet, they were lacking in big plays, recording one sack with no takeaways.

Fortunately, the Cardinals will take on a struggling 49ers offense in Week 17, so even if Lindley is back under center, the DST at least has a chance of a respectable performance. Still, if you've been relying on it all season, you might want to make sure there isn't an appealing matchups play on the waiver wire.


Seahawks DST can't be stopped
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(2:04 am ET) The Seahawks DST had another dominant performance Week 16 at Arizona, continuing a nine-week run that has made it once again arguably the top unit in Fantasy. During that stretch, it has averaged 16.2 Fantasy points, allowing 11.9 points on 231.3 yards.

It allowed only six points on 216 yards in Week 16, recording four sacks and one interception. Of the Seahawks' 33 sacks this season, 20 have come in their last five games.

Clearly, they had a favorable matchup in this one, but they also shut down the Eagles in Week 14. You don't have any reason to shy away from the Seahawks DST against St. Louis in Week 17.


Kenbrell Thompkins comes out of nowhere
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:58 am ET) After making only modest contributions since coming over from the Patriots in Week 6, Raiders wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins suddenly emerged as quarterback Derek Carr's favorite target Week 16 against Buffalo, catching five passes for 90 yards. He hadn't caught even one pass since Week 13, and his previous high in yardage was 47.

Of course, you should know how this goes by now. Fellow wide receivers James Jones and Andre Holmes have both had their stretches of Fantasy relevance this season, as has tight end Mychal Rivera. The Raiders have a multitude of viable receiving targets, but their roles aren't so clear, which makes the task of picking the most impactful from week to week next to impossible.

In other words, you'd need to play in an especially deep league to take a flier on Thompkins for the season's final week.


Latavius Murray trustworthy up to a point
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:51 am ET) If his 23 carries Week 14 against San Francisco didn't convince you, Latavius Murray's 23 carries Week 16 against Buffalo should make the message loud and clear: He is the Raiders' top running back, and they're putting more faith in him than they ever did Darren McFadden.

Granted, it hasn't translated to much production yet, but the 49ers and Bills are two of the toughest defenses against the run. Unfortunately, Denver, the Raiders' Week 17 opponent, is ranked even higher at both.

Can you trust Murray to get his carries? He's gotten them two of the last three weeks, so most likely, yes. And with 20-plus chances, there's always the chance he breaks a long one. But the matchup will make it difficult.

You'd like to start him given his ever-increasing role, but you shouldn't force him into your lineup if you have two (or maybe three) respectable running backs already.


One way or another, Fred Jackson gets his
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:44 am ET) Trailing early Week 16 at Oakland with their playoff hopes on the line, the Bills didn't stick with the running game for long, attempting only three runs in the second half. But in a way, that worked to running back Fred Jackson's advantage. He's such a good pass-catcher out of the backfield that he still topped 100 total yards, doing so for the first time since returning from a groin injury in Week 12.

Even with the return of C.J. Spiller from a long-term shoulder injury, Jackson still led the Bills in carries, but with only six for 10 yards. He also led the team in catches with nine for 93 yards. He had 10 catches just two weeks ago, so clearly, he's a PPR stud.

Is he worth starting in standard leagues as well? Well, he's also gotten 20 carries twice in five games since returning. He hasn't been as effective on the ground as through the air, but yards are yards, however he gets them.

Their matchup Week 17 at New England will probably force the Bills to go pass-heavy again, so unless you're stacked at running back, you can find a spot for Jackson in your lineup.


Desperation fuels Kyle Orton's performance
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:35 am ET) Bills quarterback Kyle Orton didn't have the most efficient day throwing the ball Week 16 at Oakland, but from a Fantasy perspective, it was a productive one. He threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns but also had two interceptions.

What's crazy, though, is that 196 of those yards came in the second half. The Bills were trailing a winnable game with their playoff hopes on the line, and their desperation showed. Unfortunately, that desperation also contributed to the second of Orton's interceptions.

The Bills have been eliminated, so no matter how much they're trailing Week 17 at New England, they probably won't be quite as desperate. You can expect more typical numbers from Orton -- maybe about 250 yards with one or two scores -- even if the matchup appears to be a favorable one, making him a player better left for two-quarterback leagues.


Kenny Britt clearly better with Shaun Hill
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:27 am ET) Rams wide receiver Kenny Britt caught a season-high nine passes on a season-high 11 targets Week 16 against the Giants, but his 103 receiving yards actually weren't a season high.

That's because he had 128, along with a touchdown, Week 11 against the Broncos.

That was Shaun Hill's first game back under center. Week 16, obviously, was his latest one. In the six games since Hill reclaimed the role, Britt has averaged 3.8 catches for 66.3 yards. In the nine games before then, he averaged 2.3 catches for 34.7 yards.

Britt has been especially good lately, averaging 73.3 yards in his last three games. Hill has also been fond of Stedman Bailey, but he doesn't seem to have a clear preference for one or the other.

Of course, the Rams passing attack isn't prolific enough to sustain both, so if you're going to target Britt or Bailey off the waiver wire, make sure it's in a deeper league. You wouldn't want to roll the dice on either in the season's final week if you can help it.


Andre Williams showing more ability
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:19 am ET) Carrying the load for the third straight game with Rashad Jennings sidelined by an ankle injury Week 16 at St. Louis, Giants rookie running back Andre Williams delivered his second 100-yard effort during that stretch, picking up 110 yards on 26 carries. Of course, just like in Week 14, it wasn't the steadiest performance. He had a 50-yard run in that one en route to a career-best 131 yards. He had a 45-yard run en route to his 110 yards in this one.

But that's true for most 100-yard rushing performances. The best backs break long runs occasionally, which makes up for all the 2- and 3-yard gains in between. It's easy to discount Williams' performance because of a long run here or a long run there because he's been so bad on a per-carry basis this season (take that 45-yard run away, and he averaged only 2.6 yards per carry -- oh noes!), but the fact is those long runs count, too. And he barreled over a couple of tacklers to complete it, which was nice to see.

Because Williams is short on receiving ability, his numbers don't look so great when he doesn't break a long run, but with all the carries he's getting now, his chances are better than not of breaking one. He's worth starting in standard leagues Week 17 against Philadelphia.


Rueben Randle not overshadowed for once
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(1:08 am ET) Since the emergence of rookie Odell Beckham in Week 9, and especially since his even bigger emergence in Week 12, wide receiver Rueben Randle has been an afterthought in the Giants passing game, averaging 2.3 catches for 31.8 yards in the four games leading up to Week 16 at St. Louis. But quarterback Eli Manning finally had enough yards to go around in that one, delivering Beckham his usual eight grabs for 148 yards and still finding Randle on six passes for 132 yards.

Randle even caught a touchdown pass, his first since Week 5. Of course, Beckham caught two and is now up to eight in his last five games, averaging 9.6 catches for 131.4 yards during that stretch.

You see the problem here, don't you? Manning was able to sustain both Beckham and Randle in this one, but that's only because he threw for a season-high 391 yards. If he regresses to a more modest total Week 17 against Philadelphia, we all know Randle is the one taking a back seat. Beckham has other-worldly talent, and Manning is smart enough to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

Of course, the Giants will probably have to throw a lot to keep pace with the Eagles, which bodes well for Randle, but you should still treat him as no more than a No. 3 wide receiver in Fantasy.


Odell Beckham making Eli Manning a stud
by Scott White | Senior Fantasy Writer
(12:58 am ET) Giants rookie wide receiver Odell Beckham had another eight catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns Week 16 at St. Louis, which has become par for the course for him. It was his second straight game and third game in five with more than 140 receiving yards and multiple scores.

What you may not have noticed, though, is that quarterback Eli Manning has taken off during that same stretch. He had a season-high 391 yards and three touchdowns in Week 16, completing 25 of 32 passes. Over his last five games, he has averaged 297.2 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.

It stands to reason, of course. Beckham couldn't be putting up all those numbers without someone throwing him the ball. This may be one of those rare cases of the wide receiver making the quarterback as opposed to the other way around. Beckham is clearly a special talent, and Manning has made a point to deliver him the ball as often as possible.

It's reason enough to give Manning another chance Week 17 against Philadelphia if you've been suffering with Matthew Stafford or Colin Kaepernick and are somehow still alive in spite of it.


 
 
 
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