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OWINGS MILLS — Staring forward with intensity as if a blitzing linebacker was in his path, Willis McGahee demonstrated Friday that he hasnâ€™t lost his swagger.
Acquired in a trade from the Buffalo Bills for an unprecedented three draft picks and a $40.12 million contract, the new Baltimore Ravens running back flashed self-confidence and an outspoken nature during an introductory press conference.
Those qualities arenâ€™t uncommon to the Ravensâ€™ brash locker room.
Despite coming off his worst season ever, McGahee, 25, didnâ€™t back off his oft-repeated stance that he believes heâ€™s the best back in the league.
â€œThatâ€™s how I think,â€ McGahee said at the Ravensâ€™ training complex while flanked by general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach Brian Billick. â€œIâ€™m not going to sit here and say Iâ€™m second to last in the NFL. If I think Iâ€™m the best, and thatâ€™s my mentality, thatâ€™s how Iâ€™m going to approach things. Thatâ€™s just my opinion.â€
The Ravens invested a third-round draft pick, the 92nd overall selection, and a seventh-round draft pick in this yearâ€™s draft along with a 2008 third round pick. They also gave McGahee a $7.5 million signing bonus and a $6 million option bonus next year, banking on him recapturing the vast potential he displayed at the University of Miami before a gruesome knee injury.
While general manager Ozzie Newsome was decked out in a somber black suit, he was wearing a celebratory smile after acquiring McGahee following 10 days of negotiations with Bills general manager Marv Levy, a dialogue that Newsome initiated at the Indianapolis airport before leaving the NFL scouting combine.
â€œTo make the type of investment that weâ€™re making both in giving up the picks and with the type of contract, is this a guy who if we move into 2009, 2010 and 2001, that is still going to be a valuable player for us?â€ Newsome said. â€œThatâ€™s the way we looked at it. If we can get a player of his caliber thatâ€™s already proven in the NFL and lock him up for five or six years, itâ€™s excellent value.â€
Now, McGahee is intent on repaying the Ravens’ trust with a major return on their investment in him as Jamal Lewisâ€™ replacement.
â€œYou always have something to prove when you go to a new team just to show your organization that you belong here,â€ McGahee said. â€œI think I can fit in pretty well and just be that game-breaker that changes the pace of the game.
â€œI can control the ball. I can block, whatever they need me to do. I can come in and help a whole lot. They wanted to do this and do that for me, and I have to do the same thing for them on the field and off the field.â€
However, McGahee became something of a hindrance for the Bills. They were eager to unload him after he slumped to a career-low 990 yards with six touchdowns last season.
McGahee defended his decline in production, though, saying it wasnâ€™t his fault while taking a shot at the Billsâ€™ personnel.
â€œMy situation wasnâ€™t that great,â€ McGahee said. â€œThank God for getting the 990, to tell you the truth.
"If you look at it, I missed two games and was facing nine guys in the box a lot. If you get to a better team with receivers, a quarterback, a line helping out, itâ€™s going to be hard to stop everybody.â€
Any conversation about McGahee rarely excludes the topic of his reconstructed knee.
He tore three ligaments in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl after rushing for 1,753 yards and 28 touchdowns in his final season, but the Bills still drafted him in the first round with the 23rd overall pick.
"My knee is better than ever," McGahee said. "I really didn’t feel comfortable until last year. When I came back, I still had a little hitch and a little limp. As the years went on, it got better and it got stronger. I don’t worry about it at all."
Newsome said team doctors expressed no concerns about the knee, and McGahee passed his physical without incident.
â€œI think the medical technology has improved so much that guys are able to come back,â€ he said.
Off the field, McGahee became a controversial figure in Buffalo with three paternity suits in two years. Plus, he suggested that the Bills should move to Toronto in an interview with Penthouse magazine.
â€œThey asked me what I thought about the team being moved to Toronto and I said, â€˜Toronto is a nice place, I wouldnâ€™t mind playing there,â€™â€ McGahee said. â€œIt came out in a story a couple months later that, â€˜McGahee wants to leave.â€™
â€œAs far as the paternity suits, if you look at it, Iâ€™m not on any child support. My kids are taken care of. You can ask my mother. Iâ€™m not worried about that.â€
McGahee said he will work out in Baltimore instead of in Miami, another point of contention with the Bills.
â€œThis is a fresh start,â€ said McGahee, whose top rushing season is 1,247 yards in 2005 when he was named a Pro Bowl alternate.
McGahee emphasized that his arrival in Baltimore is a welcome change of scenery as heâ€™ll be surrounded by other former Miami players like middle linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, a close friend.
â€œHardcore football," McGahee said when asked to describe the mentality of Miami football alums. "I think the school breeds athletes. We take it to another level when you get that â€˜Uâ€™ put on your helmet. Thatâ€™s something you will represent for the rest of your life.â€
The Miami, Fla. native sounded relieved not to have to play against Baltimore, whose top-ranked defense limited him to 23 yards on 11 carries in a 17-9 loss to end last season.
â€œIt was crazy,â€ said McGahee, who isnâ€™t planning to lobby cornerback Chris McAlister for his No. 21 jersey. â€œI was a little worried about it. Iâ€™m not going to sit here and lie about it.â€
McGahee has rushed for 3,365 yards and 24 touchdowns, registering 68 career receptions for 503 yards. Yet, he only has 18 runs of 20 yards or more.
Although smaller than Lewis at 6-foot, 228 pounds, McGahee is considered quicker with much better hands and less prone to fumble.
â€œIt adds that next element to it,â€ Billick said. â€œBecause of his size and ability to be that downhill runner, to get to the edge, bounce outside, hit the lane with an explosive run, itâ€™s exciting. The coaches right now are busy trying to find out how we can maximize that.â€
Having once lost a national championship to Ohio State and nearly his career, McGahee has grand designs on winning a Super Bowl with the defending AFC North champions.
â€œIâ€™m looking forward to trying to get to that big dance in the NFL,â€ he said.
â€œHopefully, I am the piece to the puzzle to this team to get to that next level. Theyâ€™re there, but things happen, but Iâ€™m hoping I can do something to change that around.â€
NOTES: Newsome reiterated that thereâ€™s no time table for Jonathan Ogden to make a decision on whether to retire, estimating that he has spoken with the All-Pro left tackle three or four times over the past four to six weeks. â€œWe will know when Jonathan calls us,â€ Newsome said. â€œThatâ€™s still the nature of it: â€˜Jonathan, when you decide what you want to do, call me.â€ â€¦
In his first comments since Lewis signed with the Cleveland Browns, Newsome said: â€œWe are all missing Jamal, enjoyed Jamal. He was a big part of what we did here. Now, weâ€™ve turned the page just like weâ€™re going to turn the page at fullback, at linebacker and at other positions.â€ â€¦
Besides looking at Bills free agent fullback Daimon Shelton, Green Bay Packers fullback William Henderson is another potential candidate to replace Ovie Mughelli. …
The Ravens signed exclusive-rights free agent guard Ikechuku Ndukwe.
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland