Is Ray Rice Past His Prime Anyway?

NFL teams are asking themselves if Ray Rice should get a second chance in the NFL. Beyond the ethical question—and solely based on his on-field performance—the answer is no.

Last Friday, an arbitrator lifted the indefinite suspension on Ray Rice, allowing him to sign with any team in the NFL. Over the weekend, four teams reportedly expressed interest in Rice. Unless the Indianapolis Colts want to replace Trent Richardson 2.9’s production, however, the stats show that signing him is not worth the trouble.

By almost any statistical measure, Rice was one of the worst running backs during the 2013 season. This is the same guy who went to the Pro Bowl in 2009, 2011, and 2012. Rice is no longer that type of player. The table below shows his decline over the last three years:

Rushing Stats

Year Att Yards Rush TD Y/A Y/G Att/G YScm
2011 291 1364 12 4.7 85.3 18.2 2068
2012 257 1143 9 4.4 71.4 16.1 1621
2013 214 660 4 3.1 44 14.3 981

In 2011, at the age of 24, he was at the peak of his career. He set career highs in total yards from scrimmage (2,068), which led the NFL, and total touchdowns (15). It all went downhill from there.

He still had a solid season in 2012, and made the pro bowl, but his numbers were down across the board as you can see above. It wasn’t a significant drop-off or a big concern, as running back numbers can be volatile season to season. But take a look at the 2013 season. He could barely make it back to the line of scrimmage. His 3.1 yards per carry was the worst in the NFL for anyone over 200 carries. Rice was still receiving a healthy amount of carries (14.3 per game), signaling that the Baltimore Ravens never gave up on him, but he did little productive for the team. His receiving stats present a similar story:

Receiving Stats

Year Targets Rec Yards Y/R Rec TD
2011 104 76 704 9.3 3
2012 83 61 478 7.8 1
2013 72 58 321 5.5 0

In 2012, Joe Flacco targeted him 83 times for 61 catches and 478 yards. In 2013, he caught three fewer balls, but for only 321 yards. He received ample opportunities, but was unable to take advantage of them – on the ground or through the air.

Pro Football Focus tracks every single play over the course of a season and rates players by their position. Rice was ranked last in 2013. Not only was he the worst rusher, but also the fifth-worst pass blocker for the running back position.

Chase Stuart wrote an awesome piece about the running back age curve, and after all his research concluded that running backs peak at the age of 26. They then steadily decline until they retire. Ray Rice peaked three years ago at the age of 24 and last year was a disaster. Why did he peak so early?

Rice had a huge workload over his short career. From 2009-2012, he ranked 6th, 3rd, 2nd, and 7th in touches. That doesn’t include his rookie season or last year. Not only was he a workhouse on the ground, but one of the best receivers at the running back position. He caught a lot of balls out of the backfield that took an extra toll on his body.

A player’s college workload receives less attention, but is significant. At Rutgers, Rice had 195, 335, and 380 carries, and the last two years ranked second and first in the NCAA. That’s a lot of pounding on a body before playing a NFL snap.

Four teams expressed interest in him (maybe more will come forward), but unless they’re desperate, the stats suggest Rice is not worth the trouble. In addition, teams face ethical concerns with Rice’s recent history, and can expect a media backlash upon signing him. He’s been out of the NFL the whole season. Other challenges include learning a new playbook on the fly, rust, and playing himself into game shape. Ray Rice is a low-upside, high-risk player that makes any signing a longshot.

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