Rice is a surefire first-round choice in fantasy drafts

Is Ray Rice worth an early round selection in 2011 fantasy drafts?

For as long as the Ravens have been around, they've been all about defense. Okay, there were those 4- and 6-win years in which Vinny Testaverde was slinging the ball all over the field, but we tend to forget those. Let's just say that ever since the Ravens really arrived in their Super Bowl season in 2000, Baltimore has been pretty much all about defense.

But a funny thing happened to the Ravens last season. They won games with scores that ended up like 37-34, 34-28, and 30-24. Sure, the defense came on a bit late in the regular season, but then there was that season-ending loss at Pittsburgh in the playoffs, when the Steelers scored 31 points. Yes, after a decade of dominance, the Ravens' defense finally started showing its age.

As the cracks have appeared in the foundation of Baltimore's defense, however, the offense has picked up the pace. The Ravens scored 385 points in the 2008 season and equaled a club record when they scored 391 points in 2009. They fell only about 2 points per game short of that mark in 2010.

Not coincidentally, 2008 was the year Rice arrived in Baltimore. In the two seasons that he's been a full-time starter, Rice has amassed 3,817 yards from scrimmage and scored 14 touchdowns.

Still, after beginning last season as the No. 3 fantasy running back on most preseason rank lists, Rice disappointed his owners. Though he gained 1,776 yards from scrimmage, he scored only six touchdowns and was inconsistent.

As the Ravens continue morphing into a team that relies more on its offense, however, expect those numbers to rise in 2011. After all, Rice still has everything you want in a featured fantasy back. No timeshare? Check. Catches passes on third downs? Check. Gets the goal-line work? Check. One-hundred-plus yards from scrimmage per game? Check.

Sounds like a first-round draft choice to me.

Bottom line: Draft Ray Rice in the early rounds -- read: first round -- and enjoy the results.

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