A quarter of the way in, Ray Rice’s 2011 season may not look like much at first glance. The 24 year-old Raven running back is averaging 74.3 yards per game on the ground. In his three seasons as a full-time starter, this is actually his worst rushing average on a per-game basis. Forget what the numbers show at first glance, 2011 is, and is going to be Rice’s best season as a pro. Oh by the way, his contract is up.

When you look at Rice’s rushing yards per game, or even his respectable yards per carry (4.5), you find him in the upper-middle echelon of runners this season. Darren McFadden, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, and even Fred Jackson have thrown up more impressive mileage in the ground game thus far. If you go beyond the basic metrics, neither of Football Outsiders‘ advanced running back metrics (DVOA and DYAR) have Rice in their top five.

This one of those moments when the numbers are not necessarily lying, but certainly not telling the whole story. Right now, Rice’s value in the passing game is almost equal to that of his value in Baltimore’s running game. While the passing attack did not look stellar (understatement of the season) last night against the Jets, it’s actually been incredibly beneficial to Rice’s role in the 2011 offense. Among running backs, Rice is fourth in yards from scrimmage, and is on pace to catch 64 passes this season. When you look at total yards from scrimmage, which is essential when examining an all-purpose back with Rice’s skillset, number 27 is actually on pace for his best statistical season yet. In 2009, Rice was a second-team all-pro and posted 2,041 yards from scrimmage. Barring time lost due to injury, Rice will hit 2,156 yards from scrimmage this season. For comparison to a another 5-foot-8 back, that total would rank 3rd amongst Barry Sanders’ 10 Pro Bowl seasons.

While projections a quarter of the way in are always tough to evaluate, it’s clear that his involvement in the running game isn’t going to diminish. With Ricky Williams a suitable backup but not a full-time runner anymore, it’s likely we’ll see a steady dose of Rice in almost all downs and situations. The promising part for Baltimore is that they’ve been able to get to 3-1 while only hitting Rice for 66 carries. That teases out to 264 carries on a season, which is incredibly low. The only full-time starter in the NFL who carried the ball less than 270 times last season was Matt Forte. Preserving Rice from the punishing toll the running game puts the Ravens in a great position to lean on his talents in the postseason.

Another reason to look to Rice for a monster remainder of the season is his age. Age 24 seems to be the peak season for many elite rushers. Jones-Drew, a player whose physical makeup is comparable to Rice’s, posted his best season in 2009 at age 24. Arian Foster turned in his breakout (read: probably never going to be equalled) season last year at age 24. Peterson, who arguably could be a case for any year being a running back’s peak, posted his second-highest yards from scrimmage total at 24 and score the most touchdowns of his career.

The most encouraging part to me is that Rice is just getting going, both within the season and his career. While running backs might peak in their early to mid 20s, that doesn’t mean they can’t be an integral part of a Super Bowl winner. Within the season itself, Rice has been an absolute monster in December and January. As the drive into the playoffs winds down and things get frigid, Rice has been the elite rusher we know he can be. Four of his nine 100+ yard games are in December/early January, and each of those performances were 140 yards on the ground or more.

Lastly, and perhaps one of Rice’s strongest internal motivators, is technically this could be Rice’s last season as a Raven. Now obviously, Ozzie Newsome will make re-signing Rice to a long-term deal a priority with the Haloti Ngata deal done. Rice, still on his rookie deal, is making $555k as a base salary this season. Few players are irreplacable in the NFL, and Ray Rice is one of them. Unfortunately for Baltimore’s balance sheet, this is another “pay him whatever it takes to keep him” scenario, similar to Ngata. Statistics vary on how much of an impact a contract year has on a player’s output, but the incentive is certainly there for Rice to make 2011 his strongest campaign thus far.

I can throw plenty of numbers at you to make a case for Ray Rice, but I feel like I’m preaching to the choir. Joe Flacco will continue to fluctuate in his development, the offensive line will vary in its health and effectiveness, and it seems that finding consistent performances out of wideouts will be an issue in 2011. Ray Rice will be the constant force that gives Baltimore its best chance to win football games. Ray Rice is going to get paid in 2012, and he’s going to deserve every penny.


Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report.  He is currently working on a novel about college football.  Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com