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Leading up to the start of training camp, 24×7 will preview the 2007 Baltimore Ravens position-by-position. Today we will analyze the running backs.
Not since the start of the 2000 season has the starting tailback position been manned by a player not named Jamal Lewis. While Lewis lost his job on separate occasions due to injury or suspension, he was essentially the go-to back for the offense during a seven-year span â€“ until now.
Willis McGahee takes over the pivotal role that Lewis left behind. Backed by a quality stable of runners (Musa Smith, Mike Anderson and P.J. Daniels) McGahee will need to revitalize a rushing attack that noticeably regressed since Lewisâ€™ breakout year in â€˜03.
Starter(s): In McGahee, Baltimore has a multi-faceted back who can run the ball out of any type of formation. By the same token, McGahee can also run off tackle just as well as he can hammer the ball in-between the tackles. While Lewis used violent power moves to break tackles and gain yardage after contact, McGahee is a more elusive runner in the open field.
The area that the former Hurricane opens up for the Ravens is in the passing game. As an outlet receiver, McGahee should make an impact on screens and swing routes. The offensive coaches are installing plays specifically to take advantage of McGaheeâ€™s pass-catching skills.
One of the facets of his game that he can stand to improve is his blocking prowess. As a pass-blocker in Buffaloâ€™s scheme, there were too many instances when McGahee either missed his assignment or his technique was off.
Speaking of blocking, the coaches hope that rookie fullback Leâ€™Ron McClain will be able to push incumbent Justin Green for playing time this season. Many talent evaluators regarded McClain as the top fullback in the â€˜07 draft class. Although McClain does have the potential to be a top-notch isolation blocker at the next level, his strength is catching the ball.
On the flip side, Green is a more natural runner than he is a receiver. In fact, Green is a converted tailback from Montana, so he is still learning the nuances of the fullback position. Considering that he is coming back from a torn ACL, it is unclear if he will be as effective a runner as he was before.
Backups: The front office may not have had to resort to acquiring a running back from outside the organization to replace Lewis, if Smith was not so injury prone. Smith managed to play in 12 games last season until finally tapping out against Pittsburgh, after he aggravated a neck stinger suffered in the game against the Titans. When he was on the field, Smith showed an impressive burst coupled with developed receiving skills.
Although Anderson remains an effective runner â€“ he gained 4.7 yards per carry in 16 games last season â€“ the former Bronco was essentially phased out of the offense. His role as the primary backup in â€˜07 will be tenuous if Smith proves to be healthy, and the coaches believe that Daniels is ready to log more playing time.
Still, Anderson should figure into the offensive equation in some way. There may be times when he lines up at fullback or in the backfield next to McGahee in the shotgun set in passing situations. Regardless of where Anderson lines up on the field, he should still have the chance to touch the ball at least five times a game.
The wildcard of the group is Daniels. Scouts have compared the second-year prospect out of Georgia Tech to former Raven Chester Taylor.
Like Taylor, Daniels is a plus pass-catcher, with better quickness than speed. He also has impressive vision and cutback ability. If he manages to protect the football and handle picking up the blitz, Daniels may get a chance to displace either Anderson or Smith on the depth chart â€“ but not until next season.