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32 Questions: Does McGahee take a fall?

8/25/2008


With all the questions surrounding Willis McGahee, how far should he drop?

It's called a cleanup. Willis McGahee underwent an arthroscopic procedure two weeks ago on his left knee -- the same knee that was infamously damaged in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl -- and no new damage was revealed during the surgery. McGahee was relieved. New Ravens coach John Harbaugh was relieved, and even stated he fully expected to have his Pro Bowl running back ready, willing and able to go for the team's Week 1 battle with the Bengals. Fantasy owners worldwide were relieved, but should they be?

McGahee is no longer on crutches, but isn't yet able to even jog on dry land, as his training regimen currently limits him to running in a swimming pool. Unless the weather forecast for Sept. 7 calls for flooding on a Biblical scale, McGahee might find the going a little difficult. So when exactly will he be ready to go? That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? Even his coaches don't have the answer. "There is a timetable, but I'd have to say it's fluid because you just don't know for sure," Harbaugh said on the team's Web site. "That's the thing coaches ask all the time: 'Tell us when he's going to be back.' We want that answer, too, but it's impossible."

Let's assume for the moment that everything goes well in McGahee's recovery, and he is in fact healthy enough to take the field in Week 1. That doesn't mean he's in the clear. The Ravens hired Cam Cameron to be the team's new offensive coordinator in January, and he's installing a brand-new offense in Baltimore. McGahee skipped the majority of the offseason minicamps, and may find himself in way over his head after spending the whole preseason in the pool. McGahee himself recognizes that he's in for a difficult adjustment period.

"There are certain things you need to be on the field to see," McGahee said. "Right now, they're throwing the whole playbook at us, and they want you to remember it all. What they did the first day, they might not bring it back up again until today, and I'm like, 'Man, I don't remember all this.'"

What fantasy owners need to remember is that McGahee is definitely going to remain the starter. There's no need to panic over the preseason success of rookie Ray Rice, who ran for 77 yards and a touchdown against the Vikings last week. That performance certainly cemented Rice's place as a nice handcuff for McGahee owners, and maybe even a Week 1 fantasy starter, assuming McGahee isn't yet ready to go. Yes, all the buzz surrounding Rice has increased his stock, and McGahee owners are going to have to draft Rice a round or two earlier than they probably would have had he not been so successful in the spotlight, but don't go crazy. Unless McGahee reinjures himself, Rice is only going to see limited action. This past weekend against the Rams, Rice was far more ordinary, with five carries for 20 yards in a game that saw rookie Joe Flacco jumping in under center when scheduled starter Troy Smith came down with a virus.

But enough about Rice; the question is when you should take McGahee in your draft. In an alternate universe where McGahee didn't need surgery and learned Cam Cameron's new system inside and out, he was probably a borderline top-10 running back. He missed time in 2007 with injuries and still managed to finish the season eighth in rushing with 1,207 yards. He also caught a career-high 43 passes, and this new system is the same one that made LaDainian Tomlinson a star. So in 2008, Willis may miss time at the start of the season instead of at the end. Big deal. As long as he doesn't slip getting out of the pool, I don't think McGahee's value changes. He's still in the same tier as Larry Johnson, Ryan Grant and Willie Parker.

Clearly, since the Ravens didn't panic and sign a veteran free-agent back like Shaun Alexander, Travis Henry or Cedric Benson to fill the void, they are fairly certain McGahee will be just fine. You should think that, too. In a 10-team standard league, McGahee should go in the second round, and by no later than overall pick No. 15. In a 12-team league, Willis should end up on the roster of the team picking 11th or 12th in the first round. Whether or not he goes in the first or second round in that case likely will end up being a matter of semantics, depending on which name the owner of Team 12 submits first. Just be sure to pick up the rookie out of Rutgers later on in your draft, just in case. It never hurts to have little extra Rice in the pantry.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.