J. Lewis return no sure thing

The Baltimore Sun

The return of running back Jamal Lewis is no longer a formality.

A week after both sides seemed positive about reuniting, the Ravens and Lewis have begun to look elsewhere.

The Ravens have expressed interest in a trade for the Buffalo Bills' Willis McGahee, and Lewis has begun to set up visits, beginning with the Cleveland Browns.

Although neither the Ravens nor Lewis has ruled out a return, the tone was drastically different from last Wednesday, when the Ravens cut Lewis to avoid paying him a $5 million roster bonus.

"At this point, I'm less optimistic than I was last week," Lewis' agent, Mitch Frankel, said yesterday.

The Ravens have maintained that their preference is to keep Lewis and have a standing one-year offer on the table to the franchise's all-time leading rusher.

"They have made an original offer that hasn't changed and one that Jamal won't accept," Frankel said.

It is believed the next candidate on the Ravens' running back list is McGahee.

It probably would take a first-day draft pick to acquire McGahee, who has averaged 1,122 yards and eight touchdowns in three seasons with the Bills. One possibility for the Ravens is reuniting McGahee with his starting fullback, Daimon Shelton, a free agent whom the Ravens also have shown interest in.

Buffalo appears willing to part with McGahee immediately because it brought in free-agent running backs Dominic Rhodes and Chris Brown for visits yesterday.

At this point, the presumed pecking order for the Ravens is Lewis, McGahee and Corey Dillon.

Compared to Lewis, McGahee runs with similar power, is two years younger at 25 but is more expensive. McGahee will earn $2.15 million in 2007 (the final year of his contract) and is seeking an extension.

A first-round pick out of the University of Miami in 2003, McGahee is coming off his worst season, rushing for 990 yards and six touchdowns. In his first two seasons, he averaged 91.3 yards in games he started.

The Bills are listening to trade offers for McGahee because he is expected to be a holdout in training camp if he doesn't get a contract extension.

McGahee also didn't endear himself to Buffalo this offseason with a run of bad publicity. He was hit with his third paternity suit in two years and then suggested in an interview with Penthouse magazine that the Bills should move to Toronto (though he later said his comments were taken out of context).

If the Ravens acquire McGahee, it would be logical to bring in Shelton to replace Ovie Mughelli, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons.

A 10-year veteran who has played for the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Bills, Shelton fits the Ravens' fullback mold. He is a mauling-type blocker at 6 feet, 262 pounds.

But the Ravens' priority is finding a starting running back. The hope is to have that spot resolved this week because a thin free-agent group is dwindling.

Besides Lewis and McGahee, the other options would be Dillon, Brown and perhaps Rhodes. A free agent from the Indianapolis Colts, Rhodes met with the Bills yesterday and the New York Giants on Monday. He is then expected to travel to Tampa Bay and Oakland.

While the Ravens are still looking to find their starter, they addressed their need for a third-down back by retaining Musa Smith with a one-year, $1 million contract ($510,000 in base salary and a $490,000 signing bonus).

The Ravens have had high hopes for Smith since drafting him in the third round in 2003, but injuries have limited his production. He has finished on injured reserve the past three seasons.

"Whenever we've put him on the field, he's produced," Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said. "We're looking forward to having a healthy Musa help us."

Last season, Smith found his niche on third downs and special teams. He had 22 catches for 122 yards before being placed on injured reserve in Week 15 with a neck injury.

Because he had neck surgery before the season ended, the Ravens expect him to be recovered by the start of training camp.

Smith is the second player signed by the Ravens in free agency, joining linebacker Jarret Johnson.

"I'm really planning on having a great season next year," Smith said. "I'm glad they wanted me back."

Meanwhile, B.J. Sams' court date for driving under the influence has been postponed until May 15. The Ravens return specialist had been scheduled to go to court in Towson yesterday.

Sams has been charged with drunken driving twice in his three-year Ravens career. He was arrested Oct. 3 after his car swerved and nearly struck another vehicle, according to the police report.


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