It’s only the day after Thanksgiving, but Ray Rice got an early Christmas present Friday, winning an appeal of his indefinite suspension and immediate reinstatement into the NFL. Rice was released by Baltimore on Sept. 8, shortly after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the indefinite suspension, so Rice is eligible to sign with any team.
Rice’s case, which revolves around a February incident at an Atlantic City, N.J., casino involving Janay Palmer, his then-fiancée, now wife, has been a hot-button topic from the very beginning. From the moment in late July when Goodell suspended Rice for two games, the NFL’s response to this incident has been front-page news regardless of the medium. And that was before video of Rice striking Palmer was released publicly in early September, which prompted Goodell to suspend the running back indefinitely for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.
Shortly after Goodell’s decision, the NFL Players Association appealed on Rice’s behalf, disagreeing not only with the punishment, but also the process. Rice’s appeal was heard earlier this month by former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones. After hearing testimony from several parties, including Rice and Goodell, Jones announced her decision earlier today in Rice’s favor, stating: “I am not persuaded that Rice lied to, or misled, the NFL at his June interview, I find that the indefinite suspension was an abuse of discretion and must be vacated.”
The NFL released a statement saying it respected Jones’ decision and that Rice is a free agent eligible to sign with any team. There are still some procedural- and contractual-related issues that need to be resolved (i.e., a grievance against the Ravens regarding back pay), but from a football standpoint, the focus shifts to one simple question – will Rice play again this season?
Strictly from a talent standpoint, Rice immediately becomes the most attractive free agent running back on the market. Rice was one of the most productive players in the league from 2009-12, when he ran for 5,066 yards and scored 39 total touchdowns, and he’s just 27 years old. His numbers (660 yds. rushing, 4 TDs) dropped rather dramatically last season, but he also reportedly played through a hip injury.
With five games left in the regular season, there is no shortage of teams that could use more depth in their backfield. As long as a team is prepared to deal with the potential negative publicity and feedback from those have not been pleased with the NFL’s response to domestic violence-related incidents such as Rice’s, it’s highly likely that he will get a second chance and it could happen fairly soon.
So which teams are the mostly likely potential landing spots for Rice? Here are the ones that appear to be the best fit, at least as it relates to the football side of the decision, along with some other possible options.
Forget About Baltimore or Minnesota
The Ravens decided to cut their losses in early September and could still wind up paying Rice for some of the games he missed, depending on the resolution of his grievance against the team. That alone pretty much rules out any likelihood of a reunion, don’t you think? And as far as the Vikings go, they have already been down this road once and I don’t think they have any desire of doing so again.
The Best Fits:
Indianapolis Colts – The Colts are a pretty safe bet to win the AFC South and make the playoffs, but they also have a need at running back. Trent Richardson (3.4 ypc) just has not worked out and the team’s most productive back, Ahmad Bradshaw (4.7 ypc, 8 total TDs) is out for the season with a broken leg. Rice’s resume pales in comparison to Richardson’s in the first place and the two are not only similar in stature, but also in their ability to produce as reliable receiving options out of the backfield. Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano also knows Rice pretty well, going back to when Pagano was on the Ravens’ staff from 2008-11. The Colts may be one of the softer landing spots out there for Rice.
Atlanta Falcons – Steven Jackson has not aged well since joining the Falcons, and Rice is four years younger. The Falcons do have rookie Devonta Freeman in the fold, but Rice could serve as a change-of-pace option while also allowing Freeman more time to develop. Atlanta’s passing game is in pretty good shape, but the ground attack could use some beefing up and again, Rice’s dual-threat ability would fit in nicely.
Oakland Raiders – The Raiders have one win and the one running back who has rushed for more than 100 yards in any game this season (Latavius Murray) is dealing with a concussion. Darren McFadden is a free agent, Maurice Jones-Drew looks washed up and Oakland needs all the talented offensive players it can find. Rice may not only be able to provide a jolt for the rest of this season, he could potentially be a long-term answer. And if there’s one team that would embrace a so-called “bad boy,” it would be the Silver and Black.
Jacksonville Jaguars – The Jags are 1-10 and just like Oakland, need to improve the talent on their roster. Jacksonville’s No. 1 running back is Denard Robinson, a converted quarterback. The Jags do have Blake Bortles, who they hope can be the franchise quarterback the Jags desperately need. And what better way to help a young signal-caller develop than to give him a reliable, productive running back that can make plays as both a rusher and receiver.
Carolina Panthers – Ron Rivera’s preference would be to run the ball, but his running backs have either been hurt and/or ineffective this season. The Panthers haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, which means Cam Netwon hasn’t gotten a ton of support from his backfield. Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams are both under contract for several more seasons, but no one would be surprised if the team decided to move on and go a different direction. Rice could be that direction, albeit it may not happen until after the season.
Other Possible Options:
Buffalo Bills – C.J. Spiller is on injured reserve and has just one year left on his contract. Fred Jackson will turn 34 in February. No other back on the current roster has really stood out this season, so it’s possible that the Bills could decide to give Rice a chance and see what happens.
Miami Dolphins – Lamar Miller has emerged somewhat, but that was only after Knowshon Moreno dislocated his elbow before tearing his ACL. Moreno was signed for just one year and his medical file is much thicker than Rice’s. Could Rice be taking his talents to South Beach?
New York Jets – There figure to be a lot of changes coming for the Jets this offseason. Why not give Rice, who starred in college at nearby Rutgers, a chance this last month of the regular season? It’s not like the Jets are going anywhere with Chris Johnson and if it doesn’t work out, send Rice packing along with everyone else once the season is over.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – The Buccaneers have Doug Martin, who as a rookie in 2012 did a really good Rice impression with 1,454 yards rushing, 49 receptions and 12 total touchdowns. Martin has been a disappointment since then and Rice could serve as a mentor (on the field) for third-round pick Charles Sims, who’s cut from the same dual-threat cloth.
Tennessee Titans – The Titans have second-round pick Bishop Sankey, but pretty much every team needs two productive running backs these days. Sankey and Rice are similar in skill sets, but remember what Danny Woodhead did when Whisenhunt was San Diego’s offensive coordinator last season and that was in a backfield that also included Ryan Mathews.