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By adding Lorenzo Neal – a four-time Pro Bowl fullback – to the fold, the Ravens solidified a backfield that lacked power and depth. Neal has been the best isolation blocker at his position for years. In Neal, the team has an intelligent, physical and experienced back who will find the hole and overpower defenders at the point-of-impact. The former Charger will also be a resourceful blocker in passing situations.
This signing is reminiscent of the team’s move to bring in Sam Gash late in the off-season of 2000. That signing ended up being a critical one, as Gash helped pave the way for Priest Holmes and Jamal Lewis. Baltimore ranked fifth in rushing that season.
Neal will bring a presence to the backfield that cannot be measured. Moreover, by having Neal on the field, Le’Ron McClain will be freed up to run the ball and catch passes out of the backfield.
McClain is more of a tailback than a prototypical lead blocker. Coming from Alabama, McClain’s true calling card was as a receiving option out of the backfield. He has soft hands and is adept at catching the ball without losing momentum.
As a runner, McClain is explosive and powerful enough to move a pile. His ability to gain yards inside may prove to be a huge key to how well the Baltimore rushing attack performs in ‘08. Outside of McClain (6-foot, 260 pounds), the team has no other big backs on the roster.
More importantly, McClain has the chance to be the team’s go-to goal line back. Although Willis McGahee has shown flashes of ability to score in the red area, there have been times when he has struggled to maneuver in short-yardage conversion situations.
Ray Rice, the Ravens’ second round addition from Rutgers, has an explosive burst and plays with a low center of gravity. But he lacks the size and raw power to gain the tough yards.
At the moment, McClain appears to be the most viable candidate for the job…
With Terrell Suggs holding out of camp, Antwan Barnes has taken advantage of the opportunity to log snaps at the tweener position. Barnes has been among the top performers on the defensive side of the ball.
Barnes is an intriguing player because he not only has the raw speed to blow past tackles off the edge, but he also has the strength to win inside match-ups. Against New England last Thursday night, Barnes was able to weave his way through the inside on a couple of plays.
It would behoove defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to use Barnes as a defensive tackle in different third-and-long situations this season, in the same way that the Giants used Justin Tuck to rush the passer from the middle a year ago.
Tuck is a longer, more powerful player than Barnes. He also understands how to use his hands to bull rush through an interior lineman.
Barnes is not nearly as polished, but in time, he could grow into the same type of rusher. He is already displaying an effective spin move and his first step is lightning-quick. If he is able to consistently play with better leverage and technique, the team could have a dominant inside, outside pass-rusher…
Jim Leonhard is not making life easier for the coaches who have to prepare for cut day.The fourth-year safety from Buffalo seemed like a likely candidate to get axed, given the numbers in the defensive backfield. But thus far, Leonhard has been every bit of the special teams demon as was advertised when the team signed him to a contract a few months back. If he continues to perform as a cover guy on kickoffs and punts, the team will have to consider making room for him on the roster, even if that means keeping five safeties on the roster.
Not only could Leonhard serve as an impact special teams ace, but he also has valuable starting experience at safety. As a backup, he would be better prepared to handle certain in-game situations than the rookie duo of Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura.
The decision to keep Leonhard or release him will be one of many difficult calls for the coaches to make before the season starts.