Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Is Willis McGahee a first-rounder now that he's starring for the Ravens?
I remember all the hype around Willis McGahee as he entered the NFL. He was labeled as an amazing talent, one who might have been selected No. 1 overall in the NFL draft had it not been for a devastating knee injury, in which he tore all three major ligaments.
Scouts cited his rare combination of size, speed, cut-back ability, vision and patience as elite-level talent and fantasy owners have drooled over McGahee's scoring potential ever since. Now, he's finally moving from the much-maligned offense of the Buffalo Bills to the ball-control, clock-eating, pound-the-rock styled offense Baltimore Ravens. Surely he's in a much better situation, right?
Let me start with a declaration that this article went in a completely different direction than what my initial expectation was when it was assigned to me. My expectation was for it to be one that ultimately would justify taking McGahee around his current average draft position of the late first-early second round, or perhaps elevating him to the middle of the first round. During the course of performing the research necessary to validate that hypothesis, I came across several different statistics and rankings that required me to challenge my assumptions and later, ultimately changed my mind.
First, I compared the raw production of former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis to McGahee from the past two seasons.
Within the above stats, you'll notice that they each averaged approximately the same number of carries, receptions, touchdowns and were within 125 total yards of each other over the course of a season. Lewis had the best individual season of the four listed, but McGahee was more consistent. Accounting for normal statistical variations, the two players performed more-or-less on a fairly equal level.
Taking the comparison to deeper levels:
• Over the course of the two seasons, Lewis played in 31 games; McGahee played in 30.
• Lewis was better inside the opponent's 5-yard line, as he converted 12 of 27 carries for touchdowns (44.4 percent), compared to just 8 of 30 for McGahee (26.7 percent).
• In 2006, Lewis and McGahee had the same number of rushes over 10 yards (23).
Now, perhaps surprisingly, it's established that over the past two seasons, Lewis and McGahee have been statistical equals. But we "know" that McGahee is more talented, so the difference has to be in the offensive lines of their respective clubs.
Lewis was running behind one of the best linemen in the game, Jonathan Ogden, while McGahee was stuck behind a bunch of names who are not so familiar to casual NFL fans. Surely, running behind Ogden and the rest of the Ravens' line was the reason why the older, run-down Lewis was able to keep up with stud-in-waiting McGahee, right? Wrong again.
Ogden and the rest of the Ravens' line are awesome ... in pass protection. Their performance within the running game is suspect at best. They don't provide solid running lanes. Don't believe me? Then, check out this article from Scouts, Inc.
There's a reason why the Ravens finished only two spots ahead of the Bills in those offensive-line rankings. When you account for the Ravens giving up the fewest number of sacks in the league last year with 17, you'll realize how putrid Baltimore must have been in the running game to earn such a low overall ranking. The end conclusion of this portion of the analysis can be only that the offensive line impact is more of a positive (or less of a negative) for the Buffalo running game than it is for Baltimore's.
Back to the question, where do I take Willis McGahee in my draft? My answer: I won't. McGahee's now ranked way too low on my individualized ranking sheet for me to expect a chance at drafting him. My colleagues here at the Worldwide Leader have ranked him as the 13th-best player coming into this season; I just don't see it.
Based on the statistics and observations above, I find McGahee to be, at best, a slight upgrade over Lewis. I likely would have ranked Lewis as a fifth- or sixth-round fantasy prospect if he were still on the Ravens. Even if I rank McGahee as a two-round improvement over Lewis, a third-round personal ranking of McGahee ensures I won't have the opportunity to select him this season.
You can label me a hater, but based on everything I've written above, I'm perfectly content to allow someone else to be disappointed by McGahee.
Ken Daube is a senior columnist for TalentedMrRoto.com and a fantasy football expert for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him at KenDaube@TalentedMrRoto.com.