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Jamal Lewis ready for fresh start at minicamp

6/7/2006 - NFL Jamal Lewis Baltimore Ravens + more

With the continuing anticipation over the potential acquisition of Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, and the competition with incumbent starter Kyle Boller which would then ensue, the arrival of tailback Jamal Lewis for the Baltimore Ravens' mandatory minicamp this week elicited only a ripple.

And given Lewis' travails over the past 18 months -- a stretch that included a guilty plea to federal drug charges, stints in a federal corrections facility in Florida and a halfway house in Atlanta, ankle surgery and a disappointing 2005 season -- that's not an altogether bad thing.

A brute power runner, and one of only four men in NFL history to rush for 2,000 yards in a season, Lewis is never going sneak up on anyone. But being able to report for minicamp and not be the center of attention, with the media instead focusing principally on when or if McNair will be added to the roster, is a bit of a relief for the former first-round draft choice.

"Right now, I'm free and clear," said Lewis, who spent the offseason in Atlanta, fulfilling the 500-hour community service commitment that was part of his plea bargain agreement last year. "I'm free and clear of everything that's behind me. It's just a much better situation. I'm back on the right track."

That the six-year veteran is back in Baltimore at all for another season is mildly surprising. Lewis, 26, tested the unrestricted free agent market earlier in the spring, and there were rumors that he was being pursued by the Denver Broncos. But he re-signed with the Ravens, ironically, only a day after Baltimore signed his presumptive replacement, former Broncos starter Mike Anderson.

The three-year, $26 million contract Lewis signed doesn't provide the long-term security that those big numbers might suggest. The deal is essentially for one year, at $6 million, with the Ravens on the hook for $5 million roster bonuses each in 2007 and 2008. If Lewis doesn't produce this year, in what has to be a rebound season for him, Baltimore isn't likely to invest $10 million in him (the $5 million roster bonus and a $5 million base salary) for 2007.

A solid veteran whose resume includes a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, Anderson not only provides some stiff competition but also gives the Ravens a nice insurance policy. Club officials and coach Brian Billick have said there are enough carries to go around between Lewis and Anderson, and possibly star-crossed three-year veteran Musa Smith, a talented back whose career has been derailed by injuries.

But it would mean a lot to the Baltimore offense, no matter who is playing quarterback, if Lewis can return to his past form and become a punishing workhorse-style runner again. That was hardly the case in 2005, as Lewis' offseason training was interrupted by his legal entanglements and ankle surgery, and he never really got into a rhythm.

Despite starting 15 games, Lewis ran for only 906 yards and three touchdowns on 269 carries. Not counting the 2001 season, when he missed the entire campaign with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, it was Lewis' poorest single-season performance. His anemic 3.4-yard average per attempt was significantly less than the 4.7-yard career average with which he entered the season and Lewis posted just two 100-yard outings.

There is some rust, Lewis acknowledged at the outset of the minicamp on Tuesday, from having not been with the Ravens for the earlier organized team activity drills this spring. But Lewis and the Ravens coaches are optimistic he will round back into shape and, hopefully, return to being the feared back he once was.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.