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Ray Rice worthy of a top-three fantasy football pick

I expected Ray Rice to dodge the question as if it were an outside linebacker in the Ravens' backfield.

What does a standout running back in the Lombardi-first, you-second world of the NFL think about fantasy football, a leisure activity that is all about individual accomplishments?

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"I'm definitely a fan of it. It gives people thrills and joy on Sundays," Rice said. "I didn't really know [how big] fantasy football was until I started being myself in the NFL. Fantasy football is something that guys take very seriously."

Rice is someone those fantasy guys are taking very seriously, too.

After a Pro Bowl season in '09, he has been named as a top-five pick by many publications. ESPN and Yahoo! had him as the No. 4 back, and Sports Illustrated ranked him second to Tennessee's Chris Johnson.

Fantasy owners agree. Rice's average draft position in standard ESPN leagues is 4.4, behind Johnson, the Vikings' Adrian Peterson and the Jaguars' Maurice Jones-Drew.

"Ray's a great teammate, always smiling, always has a bounce in his step, kind of like a little kid," center Matt Birk marveled. "But then once he gets on the field and straps it on, he's serious. The guy runs possessed. He's quick. He's strong. He's fast. He's got great desire.

"To be a great football player, regardless of the position, you have to have that passion and desire, and Ray certainly has that."

Rice rumbled for 1,339 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in 2009. In the passing game, he hauled in a team-high 78 catches for 702 yards and a score. His reception totals were an NFL best for running backs, too, which made him even more valuable in leagues that awarded points per reception.

"I'm just ready to go out every game knowing that I'm a guy ... the defense has to pay attention to," said the 5-foot-8 jitterbug.

Birk, who played with Peterson in Minnesota, said Rice and the Vikings' bruising back share a quality: explosiveness. Rice had four scores longer than 20 yards in '09, not including his 83-yard touchdown run in the playoff win over the Patriots.

"It's always fun to have guys like that on your offense, especially when you play offensive line," Birk said. "Yeah, 10-play scoring drives are nice. But sometimes, one-play scoring drives are nice, too."

Rice's grandest '09 stat: His 2,041 yards from scrimmage were the NFL's second-highest total (Johnson was first). That equated to the fourth-highest fantasy point total among RBs in standard ESPN leagues.

The third-year back says he's shooting for similar totals this season.

Still, "The overall goal is to win," Rice said, predictably. "And, I did over 2,000 all-purpose [yards] last year, so anything over 2,000 all-purpose, within the team aspect, I'm definitely going to be proud to do."

There are three reasons to think Rice's numbers could be even juicier in 2010. "The sky's the limit for him," offensive tackle Michael Oher said. Here's why:

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  • He’s diesel: With a focus on running between the tackles, Rice bulked up to 211 pounds in the offseason. Doing that effectively is “always something that I believe I can do,” Rice said. If he proves it, he could get more opportunities to move the chains in garbage time.
  • He’s driven: Rice has a chip on his shoulder — he has said he still feels underrated — and his drive is becoming legendary in Baltimore. “He’s one of the hardest-working players I’ve ever been around,” Oher said. That drive shows up every time he busts opponents in the mouth with a heavy dose of I-told-you-so.
  • He’s ready: Often stuck on the sidelines when the Ravens entered the red zone, Rice could receive more carries in goal-to-go situations in 2010. In the first week of camp, he got a lot of work near the goal line and scored at will when the Ravens spread out the defense with three- and four-wide sets. “I want to be used in the red zone,” he said.

For the first time since Jamal Lewis was in his prime, it's OK to be a homer if you get a top-five pick. But there are reasons to hesitate before pulling the trigger on Rice.

Can he endure another season's pounding? Will McGahee and Le'Ron McClain cut into his carries? Are there enough balls to go around in the Ravens offense?

"I don't want to be a letdown, but I have to focus on my team goals first," Rice said.

That's music to the ears of coach John Harbaugh, who quickly sniffed out my sneaky question about Rice's production.

"Are you with the fantasy football deal?" Harbaugh said last week, drawing laughs from reporters. "I think Ray is going to have a heck of a year. ... Willis should have a heck of a year, Le'Ron, all of our guys. How many yards they get really doesn't matter to us."

Total buzzkill, right?

But as long as the Ravens are winning and Rice is trying to prove his doubters wrong, you can count on trophy-winning numbers from Rice.

"I did it last year. Now I have to do it again. Then do it again. And keep doing it until people know that I'm for real," Rice, 23, said. "I need to put myself in that position year after year so that when I get a few years under my belt, there's not going to be a question if I'm a top-five or top-three back in the NFL. It's going to come in due time."

I'm willing to wager a top-three pick on that.

{Cover design by Aubrey Fornwalt and photo by Brian Krista, b} 

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