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Ray Rice finished second in the league in rushing last season, his 1,364 yards behind only Maurice Jones-Drew's 1,606. Rice led the NFL in yards from scrimmage, with 76 catches for 704 yards giving him a total of 2,068 yards gained -- a category he's been top three in for each of the past three years.
Long story short, when the discussion turns to elite running backs, Rice has earned a seat at the table.
Rice and the Ravens remain unable to come to an agreement on a long-term contract, though, with Rice skipping the team's early OTAs and, thus far, delaying on signing his franchise-tag tender, which would pay him $7.7 million for the 2012 season. Rice reportedly is seeking a deal in the neighborhood of Adrian Peterson's seven-year, $100 million contract ($36 million guaranteed) or Chris Johnson's six-year, $56 million deal ($30 million guaranteed).
ESPN's Sal Paolantonio said on "NFL Live" Wednesday that "that's not going to happen," and added that it's hard to see Rice's standoff with the team ending before training camp.
This all brings us back to one of the game's age-old dilemmas: How much should a team commit to a running back?
NFL franchises can use the "short shelf life" argument against handing out monster long-term deals to RBs -- it's the same argument some people use when advocating against taking a running back early in the draft, as Cleveland traded up to do with Trent Richardson.
Peterson and Johnson didn't help their running back brethren fight that stigma, either. Peterson tore his ACL late in the 2011 season, while Johnson had to scratch and claw his way to the 1,000-yard mark, enduring 12 games with 65 yards rushing or less.
Does that necessarily mean Rice is going to get hurt or suddenly backtrack production-wise with a new contract? Of course not, but it's a buyer-beware market.
But it's a catch-22. The league's track record of abbreviated careers for running backs gives those players all the more incentive to strike while the iron's hot. There's a very realistic possibility that the next lucrative contract Rice signs will be his last as an NFL back -- the odds that he's still racking up 350-plus touches per season in four or five years, when he nears 30 years of age, are pretty low.
Who has the advantage in the Rice-Ravens showdown? Since we're still in May, probably the Ravens for the moment, since the urgency to cave and give Rice a monster contract has yet to hit. The scales will tip a little more toward the diminutive back as September approaches, however, since Baltimore has no chance of replacing Rice in the backfield.
So where is the middle ground?
The two sides can probably use LeSean McCoy's recent five-year extension, which ran his contract for the next six seasons to $45.6 million with a little less than $20.8 million guaranteed. That's about $7.6 million per season.
Rice has been more productive over a longer period of time than McCoy, so he appears to have a case for something north of what the Eagles back received. Still, anything close to McCoy would be well off Johnson's pace ($9.3 million per year) and miles from Peterson's ($14.3 million per year). How the Ravens view Rice in comparison to McCoy may determine Rice's future in Baltimore.