The Competition: Running Backs

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Heading into the first practice of training camp, BaltimoreRavens.com will offer previews of those positions that feature a tough competition, focusing on who will be fighting for playing time. Today, the running backs take the spotlight.

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The Ravens employed a "three-headed monster" so well last year that they ended the season as the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Le'Ron McClain, all 260 pounds (at least) of him, led the way with 232 carries for 902 yards and 10 touchdowns. Willis McGahee turned in 170 touches for 671 yards and seven scores. And then there was Ray Rice coming up the rear with 107 attempts for 454 yards.

That group will likely see a shakeup in 2009.

The biggest question is McGahee's status. A former Pro Bowler, McGahee battled an assortment of injuries throughout the season that kept him from being full strength. There were rumors that he was in head coach John Harbaugh's doghouse, even though both sides continually maintained that things were fine.

Whatever the case, McGahee primarily worked with the second team during Organized Team Activities (OTAs), at least during the portions of practice open to the media, leaving Rice with the first-string nod.

For his part, McGahee doesn't seem worried about what unit he is on.

"It wouldn't be right," McGahee told reporters last month. "I don't mind [practicing with the second team]. Work is work. That's either with the first, second or third."

McGahee has been a regular at the voluntary minicamps, however, trying to recover from offseason arthroscopic knee surgery and ankle surgery, not to mention rebound from a rough showing in 2008.

"Nobody expected me to get drafted in the first round. Nobody expected me to come back and play football [after a knee injury in college]," he said. "It doesn't bother me. I know what I can do. I know I can turn the light switch on when I need to. I'm ready to turn it on."

Here is a breakdown at how the current running back group stacks up based on last year's performance:

Le'Ron McClain

2008:When McGahee came into training camp out of shape and with a knee issue, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron began to experiment with the burly McClain at halfback. Showing deceptively nimble moves, McClain became one of the most feared runners in the NFL. Not many people wanted to hit the 2007 draft pick, and he proved to be a reliable chain-mover that occasionally broke a big one late in games.

Forecast:McClain should be a fixture on the Ravens' roster for years to come. But, signs are pointing to him seeing less carries this year than last. Baltimore did not retain fullback Lorenzo Neal, meaning that McClain could return to his original role. Don't think that he will be a full-time fullback, though. He will still get his reps, but just not as the featured back.

Willis McGahee

2008:There was a knee injury in training camp, an eye injury early in the season, an ankle problem and a late-year concussion. McGahee simply wasn't himself in 2008. There were three 100-yard performances, but too many times when he wasn't a prominent part of the game plan because of injury or poor practices.

Forecast:McGahee should make the roster by all accounts. The Ravens would take nearly an $11 million cap hit if he is released due to bonuses that would accelerate. But based on a football standpoint, McGahee is still the versatile weapon he showed in 2007, when he boasted a career-high 1,483 total yards. The former Buffalo Bill needs to come into training camp healthy so he can revert to form.

Ray Rice

2008:Rice was a pleasant surprise for Ravens fans, as he came through as a stellar third-down back. Rice's 454 rushing yards were supplemented by 33 catches for 273 yards. The second-round draft pick did a solid job of picking up blitzes, too. Rice was sidelined for the final three contests of the season with a knee injury.

Forecast:The jury is still out on if Rice will hold on to the starting spot throughout training camp, but he'll probably take the first carry. Rice has said that he wants to show he can be an every-down back, so he bulked up noticeably through his upper body to take more of a pounding. The charismatic young Raven looked very quick in OTAs, and he explained that he felt much better this offseason than his first one.

2008:A former draft pick of Cameron's when he was with the Miami Dolphins, Parmele did not join the Ravens until the final three weeks of the season. The Toledo product only played in one game, notching two attempts for 27 yards.

Forecast:It's evident that the Ravens like Parmele's potential. He surpassed 1,000 yards twice in college, and was being tried at punt returner for the Dolphins. With the Ravens, Parmele will have to stand out on special teams, which he can do because of his 5-foot-11, 220-pound size. If not, Parmele is a prime candidate for the practice squad.

2008:Lawrence spent most of the 2008 campaign on Baltimore's practice squad. He was signed by the Chicago Bears as a rookie free agent in 2007 and also had a stint with the Seattle Seahawks.

Forecast:It is not going to be easy for Lawrence to make the 53-man active roster. He is basically competing with Parmele and sixth-round draft pick Cerdic Peerman to provide depth for Rice and McGahee. He will have to make a few eye-opening plays during the preseason and show he can contribute on special teams

2008:The Virginia product was named to the All-Atlantic Coast Conference honorable mention squad after leading the team with a career-high 774 yards on 153 carries and seven touchdowns as a senior. He also turned in 44 receptions for 193 yards and returned kickoffs

Forecast:The Ravens have not kept their final draft selections in the past few years, but Peerman, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at his position (4.45 seconds), could be the exception. He can return kicks, and is the quick scat-back that is a contrast to the styles of McGahee, McClain and even Rice. Peerman's high character would be a good addition to the locker room, as well. It would be a shock to see him not in a Ravens uniform – whether practice squad or active – in 2009.

Rookie Jason Cook

2008:Serving as a team captain at Ole Miss with Ravens first-rounder Michael Oher his senior season, Cook saw* *action in all 13 games (7 starts), totaling 7 receptions for 47 yards and one touchdown.

Forecast:Cook has a great opportunity to make the team as an undrafted free agent because Neal is not on the open market after signing with the Oakland Raiders. At 6-feet, 235 pounds, Cook, who has said that he loves contact, is built in the classic fullback style, so he could be the lead blocker in the Ravens' "Jumbo" package with McClain in the backfield. Cook is another high-character guy, as well, something Baltimore always covets.  

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