Don Banks of Sports Illustrated recently managed to contact 12 league sources–including high-level executives, coaches, agents, etc.–and asked them the following: did they anticipate any team signing Ray Rice either before training camp or during the preseason, and if so, which team or teams seemed to be the most likely candidates to pursue Rice at some point?
The former second-round pick out of Rutgers was one of the more dynamic playmakers in the league in the early stages of his career, piling up over 2,000 yards from scrimmage in 2009 and 2011 and scoring 43 total touchdowns in a Ravens uniform. Outside of his rookie campaign, in which he was the third option in a three-man backfield, he never caught fewer than 58 passes in a season, and he holds a career 4.3 yards per carry average.
But then 2013 happened. The Ravens, fresh off a Super Bowl championship, sputtered miserably on offense, and Rice struggled to the worst statistical season of his career, amassing just 660 yards on 214 carries (3.1 YPC) and reaching the endzone only four times. Less than two months after the season ended, Rice was arrested for the now infamous assault of his then-fiancee (now wife), Janay Palmer.
If Rice’s 2013 season had gone as well as his 2009-2012 efforts, he might already have a job by now. In response to Banks’ queries, one front office executive said Rice will probably not get another chance in the league, as he was “declining” and plays a “replaceable position.” But if Rice played at a Pro Bowl level in 2013, it would be difficult to say he was declining, and a number of other sources apparently believe that there are teams that would be willing to treat 2013 as one bad year, and not as a sign of things to come.
Another high-level executive said, “I’m a little bit surprised that it has taken this long for someone to sign him. I think he deserves to play. From all accounts, he’s a great person who made a pretty egregious mistake. The reaction to what he did was exacerbated by the fact it was on video. But let’s face it, we’re a league in which [former Rams defensive lineman] Leonard Little killed somebody [while driving drunk in 1998], and [then-Browns receiver] Donte’ Stallworth killed somebody [while driving drunk in 2009]. And they kept playing.”
That executive pointed to the Bills as one team that might be interested in taking a flyer on Rice, who always enjoyed a strong relationship with new Buffalo head coach Rex Ryan, and a veteran agent sees the Chiefs as a viable landing spot, given Andy Reid‘s willingness to give Michael Vick a second chance in Philadelphia. The agent said, “Rice deserves a second chance. He’s still a young kid. And when NFL owners get in trouble, they don’t get kicked out of the league.”
The problem, of course, is that the league is now in a “new era” in terms of domestic violence issues, and Rice is not an elite talent like Adrian Peterson or Greg Hardy at this point in his career. He handled an immensely heavy workload at Rutgers and was arguably the most effective offensive weapon for the Ravens for five years, so there is a lot of wear on his 28-year-old legs. As a result, he is probably best suited as a change-of-pace back, someone who can provide a spark but not shoulder the burden of 200 or more carries. And, given the decreasing emphasis on the running game that the league is experiencing, it just might not be worth it for a team to take the type of public relations hit that a Rice signing would engender.
The consensus among those who answered Banks’ questions appears to be that Rice would not be a toxic influence and is probably deserving of another chance, given the isolated nature of his transgression and his status as an exemplary citizen prior to the assault. But his age and the position he plays works against him, and though a number of Banks’ sources are optimistic about Rice’s chances, it will take a perfect storm of need, fit, and even desperation for him to get his mulligan.