Shift in backfield

Ravens get McGahee to replace J. Lewis

March 09, 2007|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,Sun reporter

The Ravens traded three draft picks to the Buffalo Bills for running back Willis McGahee yesterday, an unprecedented move that should push them closer to the Super Bowl, but one that came at a steep price.

The Ravens gave up third- and seventh-round picks this year and a third-rounder next year, marking the most picks they have ever traded for a player.

Soon after the deal, the team signed McGahee to a seven-year contract, according to ESPN, that could be worth $40.12 million, which would place him among the NFL's five highest-paid running backs.

McGahee, who was entering the final year of his contract with the Bills, will receive a $7.5 million signing bonus from the Ravens this year and a $6 million option bonus after the 2007 season.

"I just hope I'm the piece of the puzzle to get us to the next level," McGahee, who lives in the Miami area, told reporters in Florida before boarding a flight to Baltimore yesterday, where he will be introduced at a news conference today. "I can't believe it's true. It's a fresh start. I'm really excited."

After Jamal Lewis, the Ravens' all-time leading rusher, signed with the Browns late Wednesday, the team was faced with two options: close the deal on the continuing trade talks with the Bills or sign aging free agent Corey Dillon.

Knowing they needed an impact running back to make a serious playoff run, the Ravens decided to make their boldest - and perhaps last - strike during this year's free-agency period.

"We're getting a dynamic back who has the potential to diversify our running game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We've studied him, and he brings the same passion and preparation that is common to [University of] Miami players.

"Getting a player as good as Willis is another example of how Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] and his department size up the market and use our resources well."

McGahee should be an upgrade over Lewis, whose play has declined since he gained 2,066 yards in 2003.

Over the past three seasons, McGahee outproduced Lewis in virtually every category - rushing yards, rushing average, touchdowns, 20-yard runs and first downs.

But was McGahee worth the price?

The Ravens switched their focus to McGahee earlier this week after Lewis declined their one-year, $2 million offer. Instead of increasing the offer to Lewis, the Ravens gave McGahee nearly $15 million in the first two years of his contract and nearly gutted their draft.

Because they had already given up a fourth-round pick for quarterback Steve McNair, the Ravens currently have only two selections in the first 155 picks in this year's draft (they could receive a fourth-round compensatory pick later this month for losing free agent Chester Taylor last year).

Switching from Lewis to McGahee wasn't warmly received by everyone.

"I'm not really that happy right now, to be honest," Ravens tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "Jamal Lewis is a really good friend of mine and wished he could be back with the Ravens. I've heard a lot about McGahee and he's an excellent player. At the same time, I wished we still had Jamal."

McGahee, 25, rushed for 3,365 yards and scored 24 touchdowns in three seasons with the Bills.

A big and strong back at 6 feet, 228 pounds, he can be effective inside and outside the tackles. He's a natural cut-back runner who can weave to avoid tackles in space.

McGahee is coming off his worst season, gaining 990 yards in 2006 - though some observers say that was a result of a poor offensive line. He has never consistently produced big runs, totaling 18 runs of more than 20 yards in his career, including just four last season.

Considered the most talented running back in the 2003 draft, he was nevertheless a question mark because he suffered a gruesome knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. It was an injury - he tore three ligaments in his left knee - that was once thought to be career-threatening.

After being selected 23rd overall by the Bills, McGahee sat out his rookie season while rehabbing his knee, but returned in 2004 to rush for 1,128 yards and a career-high 13 touchdowns.

"This is a runner who can make people miss and has the explosion and speed to take it the distance," Newsome said "He also has the power and size to run inside. He's a viable receiver out of the backfield and is a good pass blocker, not something every back can do.

"He also plays physical and with toughness, which are things we pride ourselves on here."

It was only a week ago that it seemed as if the Ravens would be reuniting with Lewis. The team cut Lewis on Feb. 28 to avoid paying him a $5 million roster bonus, but the Ravens and Lewis both expressed optimism that a new deal could be reached.

When the team wouldn't budge on its one-year, $2 million offer, Lewis decided to visit Cleveland, where he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal on Wednesday.

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