The Ravens traded three draft picks to the Buffalo Bills for running back Willis McGahee yesterday, an unprecedented move that should push them closer to the Super Bowl, but one that came at a steep price.
The Ravens gave up third- and seventh-round picks this year and a third-rounder next year, marking the most picks they have ever traded for a player.
McGahee, who was entering the final year of his contract with the Bills, will receive a $7.5 million signing bonus from the Ravens this year and a $6 million option bonus after the 2007 season.
"I just hope I'm the piece of the puzzle to get us to the next level," McGahee, who lives in the Miami area, told reporters in Florida before boarding a flight to Baltimore yesterday, where he will be introduced at a news conference today. "I can't believe it's true. It's a fresh start. I'm really excited."
After Jamal Lewis, the Ravens' all-time leading rusher, signed with the Browns late Wednesday, the team was faced with two options: close the deal on the continuing trade talks with the Bills or sign aging free agent Corey Dillon.
Knowing they needed an impact running back to make a serious playoff run, the Ravens decided to make their boldest - and perhaps last - strike during this year's free-agency period.
"We're getting a dynamic back who has the potential to diversify our running game," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "We've studied him, and he brings the same passion and preparation that is common to [University of] Miami players.
"Getting a player as good as Willis is another example of how Ozzie [Newsome, general manager] and his department size up the market and use our resources well."
McGahee should be an upgrade over Lewis, whose play has declined since he gained 2,066 yards in 2003.
Over the past three seasons, McGahee outproduced Lewis in virtually every category - rushing yards, rushing average, touchdowns, 20-yard runs and first downs.
But was McGahee worth the price?
The Ravens switched their focus to McGahee earlier this week after Lewis declined their one-year, $2 million offer. Instead of increasing the offer to Lewis, the Ravens gave McGahee nearly $15 million in the first two years of his contract and nearly gutted their draft.
Because they had already given up a fourth-round pick for quarterback Steve McNair, the Ravens currently have only two selections in the first 155 picks in this year's draft (they could receive a fourth-round compensatory pick later this month for losing free agent Chester Taylor last year).
Switching from Lewis to McGahee wasn't warmly received by everyone.
"I'm not really that happy right now, to be honest," Ravens tight end Daniel Wilcox said. "Jamal Lewis is a really good friend of mine and wished he could be back with the Ravens. I've heard a lot about McGahee and he's an excellent player. At the same time, I wished we still had Jamal."
McGahee, 25, rushed for 3,365 yards and scored 24 touchdowns in three seasons with the Bills.
A big and strong back at 6 feet, 228 pounds, he can be effective inside and outside the tackles. He's a natural cut-back runner who can weave to avoid tackles in space.
McGahee is coming off his worst season, gaining 990 yards in 2006 - though some observers say that was a result of a poor offensive line. He has never consistently produced big runs, totaling 18 runs of more than 20 yards in his career, including just four last season.
Considered the most talented running back in the 2003 draft, he was nevertheless a question mark because he suffered a gruesome knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. It was an injury - he tore three ligaments in his left knee - that was once thought to be career-threatening.
After being selected 23rd overall by the Bills, McGahee sat out his rookie season while rehabbing his knee, but returned in 2004 to rush for 1,128 yards and a career-high 13 touchdowns.
"This is a runner who can make people miss and has the explosion and speed to take it the distance," Newsome said "He also has the power and size to run inside. He's a viable receiver out of the backfield and is a good pass blocker, not something every back can do.
"He also plays physical and with toughness, which are things we pride ourselves on here."
It was only a week ago that it seemed as if the Ravens would be reuniting with Lewis. The team cut Lewis on Feb. 28 to avoid paying him a $5 million roster bonus, but the Ravens and Lewis both expressed optimism that a new deal could be reached.
When the team wouldn't budge on its one-year, $2 million offer, Lewis decided to visit Cleveland, where he signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal on Wednesday.
"I was surprised that we lost Jamal. I thought it was a strong chance that he'd be back," Ravens linebacker Bart Scott said. "In losing Jamal, we gained a Willis McGahee, a back that we had tremendous respect in our defensive room. I think he'll be a great addition. If you have to lose a Jamal, getting McGahee doesn't make it as bad."
The Bills put McGahee on the trading block because they didn't want to give him an extension and wanted to distance themselves from his bad publicity.
During the offseason, 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. He later said his comments were taken out of context.
The Ravens needed a running back to jump-start a dragging ground game. After having the top-ranked rushing game in 2003, their rushing attack finished ninth in 2004, 21st in 2005 and 25th in 2006.
"From what I've seen of Willis, he is a heck of a warrior," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said in a statement from the team. "The way he runs and the passion he plays with is contagious. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. I'm truly excited to have him as a teammate."
UPS AND DOWNS: Running bakcs Willis McGahee and Jamal Lewis have had their share of success and hardship in their careers.
As sophomore at University of Miami, McGahee runs for for 1,686 yards and 27 touchdowns and is Heisman Trophy finalist.
Is selcted 23rd overall in draft by Bills, but sits out season to rehab knee injury.
Rushes for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns in rookie season.
Traded to Ravens for third-and-seventh-round draft picks this year and third-rounder in 2008.
WILLIS MCGAHEE -- FROM BUFFALO TO BALTIMORE
As a rookie, Lewis gains 1,364 yards in regular season and 102 yards in Super BOwl win over Giants.
In gruesome injury, McGahee tears left ACL in Miami's loss to Ohio State in Fiesta Bowl in January.
Rushes for 2,066 yards, second most in NFL history.
Wears out welcome in Buffalo after rushing for career-low 990 yards in 14 starts and suggesting the Bills should move to Toronto in a Penthouse article, later saying his comments were taken out of context.
Helps Ravens to 13-3 record and playoffs, rushing for 1,132 yards and scoring nine touchdowns.
JAMAL LEWIS -- FROM BALTIMORE TO CLEVELAND
Knee injury in training camp ends season
Pleads guilty in drug case, misses four games due to suspension and ankle injury but still gains more than 1,000 yards; spends four months in prison after season.
Released by Ravens and signs one-year deal with Cleveland Browns.