The Value of Willis McGahee

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There's no denying that Willis McGahee's role on the Ravens is different from what it was two years ago when he was Baltimore's featured back. McGahee notched a career-low carries for a career-low yards in 2009.

But that doesn't mean that the 28-year-old running back isn't still a very valuable asset for the Ravens.

With the trading period beginning Friday and rumors about McGahee being dealt in the news, Head CoachJohn Harbaughhas multiple times reiterated that he wants his veteran running back in Baltimore for 2010.

And there's good reason why.

"I think McGahee will be on our team next year," Harbaugh said at the Scouting Combine this past weekend. "He's a leader on our football team."

Some of the most successful teams in the NFL this past season had a rotational running attack. For example, let's look at the four teams who played for their conference championships.

The Jets – who had the NFL's leading rushing attack – got more than 1,400 yards from Thomas Jones and, especially late in the year, hit teams hard with rookie Shonn Green. Bulky runner Joeseph Addai headed the Colts' runners but last year's first-round pick, the smaller Donald Brown, was an effective change of pace.

The Saints had three players with more than 350 yards rushing, led by speedsters Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and balanced with the burlier Mike Bell. The Vikings have All-Pro Adrian Peterson with veteran former Raven Chester Taylor providing a good pass-catching and third-down option.

The Ravens had the NFL's fifth-ranked rushing offense in 2009 with their own 1-2 punch.

Pro BowlerRay Rice showed he can do it all, rushing 254 times for 1,339 yards and catching a team-high 78 passes for 702 yards. McGahee notched 14 total touchdowns (12 via the ground), ran for 544 yards and averaged a career-high 5.0 yards per carry.

The natural question when there is an abundance of talent at one position is whether any could be cut to help other areas of need on a team. But while Rice proved he can do a lot, asking for him to carry McGahee's share of the burden as well could take away from Rice's efficiency.

The NFL has trended towards lessening the number of carries its primary back sees over the course of the season. There were only three tailbacks that had 300 or more carries in 2009, down from 10 just three seasons ago and 13 six years ago.

Part of the reason is that passing attempts are on the rise. But another is that teams are opting to keep their tailbacks fresher over the entire season and prolonging their careers by lessening the toll their bodies take.

McGahee was especially effective at the end of the season when he was still fresh and in good shape. He ran for 167 yards and three touchdowns against the Raiders to launch Baltimore into the postseason. Then he followed that up with 62 yards rushing and a touchdown in the first round of the playoffs versus the Patriots.

"The way he ran the ball at the end of the year, I told him this, that was Willis McGahee," Harbaugh said during his season-ending press conference. "That was impressive. I think he'll have a great offseason, and he'll build on that going into next year."

Not only does McGahee spell Rice, but he provides a different running style and therefore another wrinkle to Baltimore's offense.

McGahee was the hammer to Rice's sizzle and the Ravens especially relied on his power in the red zone. All of his 12 rushing touchdowns except one (the 77-yard stiff-arm Raiders run), came within the red zone and seven were from five yards or less.

Harbaugh was so impressed with McGahee's contributions this past year, the shape he was in and the attitude he had about his changing role, that he still refuses to call McGahee the backup even though Rice is listed as No. 1 on the depth chart.

"To me, the starting running back and the guy that is going to start next week is the guy that's playing the best," Harbaugh said. "Ray's got Willis there, and Le'Ron McClainJalen Parmele and Matt Lawrence and whoever else we bring in. Those guys are all going to be fighting for playing time.

"That's what a coach wants – competition. Willis McGahee could gain 1,500 yards next year. That could easily happen, and I'm not ruling it out."

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