September 23, 2009
Nine months ago Willis McGahee(notes) lay motionless on the frozen turf of Heinz Field. Ripping off a double-digit gain in the waning moments of the AFC Championship game, the mercurial back was victimized by a vicious, but legal, hit painfully issued by Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark(notes) (See the blow here). The savage split-second exchange violently forced the rusher's head to whiplash causing him to fall limply to the ground. Over 65,000 black and gold clad spectators, in a frenzied state with the home team just minutes away from a Super Bowl berth, were stunned silent.
Minutes later, surrounded by medical personnel and pious players from both sides on bended knee, the Baltimore back was strapped to a gurney and carted off the field.
To many, McGahee's morose finish to last season marked the end of a once promising career limited by injurious mental and physical episodes. In a way, their observations proved prophetic. On that cold, fateful day in Pittsburgh, the runner's career did turn. But the unforeseen path it took no pundit could've predicted.
The suddenly selfless McGahee, no longer the versatile, every-down weapon he was at his physical pinnacle, has transformed into a player fantasy bargain shoppers adore and unabashed Ray Rice(notes) admirers deplore. After resting his wrenched neck and undergoing ankle surgery during the offseason, the morphed rusher has strangely become virtual pigskin's premiere goal-line vulture. Surely Jerome Bettis' DNA was implanted while he was under the knife. For a previously mediocre red zone rusher who was showing signs of rapid deterioration - Scouts Inc. called him a "diminishing player" - it's the only logical explanation.
As the fantasy community fondly encased Rice's name in hearts in their draft diaries, whispers of McGahee's resurrection quietly bubbled to the surface. Upon hearing the news, a disgusted Andy Behrens immediately placed a large bounty on the TD poacher's head. Still the former Rutgers standout's bowling ball frame, general well-roundedness and expanding role within the league's most run-heavy system had owners, and most pigskin connoisseurs, erotically charged. According to Mock Draft Central, Rice's draft stock climbed into the top 40 (ADP 37.67, RB18) just before the season kicked off while McGahee's stagnated in the middle rounds (110.33, RB44).
In the minds of many, the thought of McGahee being more valuable than Rice was complete blasphemy. The "Freight Train," Le'Ron McClain(notes), was considerably more menacing. Understandably, those who bought into the hype are now overstuffed with fried crow.
Through two weeks, the former Madden Bowl champ has totaled more multi-TD games than he did in 14 contests a year ago. Toting 62.5 percent of the Ravens red zone rushes and the most carries inside the 20 in the league (10), he's tallied a robust 20.2 fantasy points per game in standard leagues, the fourth-highest mark among RBs. Unless a catastrophic injury stymies the resurgence, don't expect the veteran's role to change anytime soon. Even Rice agrees. From the Baltimore Sun:
"I know I've got to get in from at least the 20[-yard line]," Rice said, "because when I get to the goal line, I'm coming out."
Though McGahee's overall workload will fluctuate game-to-game, his production likely won't. Joe Flacco(notes) has shown considerable improvement across-the-board, which will decrease stacked boxes. The Ravens also showcase arguably one of the AFC's best offensive lines. Throw in a rather favorable schedule - minus matchups with Pittsburgh (twice) and Minnesota - and not even a fourth paternity suit could tarnish the future Trojan pitchman's comeback story. Unless, of course, the injury imp bites.
This week matched against one of the league's most pliable defenses, Cleveland, the Raven will undoubtedly continue his renaissance. The Chihuahuas have allowed a pathetic 5.5 yards per carry, 227 total yards per game and five scores to backs this season, equal to the second-most fantasy points surrendered. Because their bendable defensive front will be of little challenge to Baltimore's trench bruisers, John Harbaugh will likely emphasize the run to pound their AFC North rival into oblivion. Even if McGahee compiles a similar touch total as Week 1 (14), he's again a strong candidate for multiple pay-dirt splashes, making him a trustworthy RB2 in 12-team and deeper leagues.
While in Buffalo, McGahee, in one of his several Rickey Henderson moments, proclaimed he was the "greatest back in the league." Based on his stellar start in a reconfigured role, the prideful rusher is actually the "most despised vulture in fantasy." That is, to those who didn't think twice about Rice.
Fearless Forecast Week 3: 14 carries, 69 rushing yards, 3 receptions, 17 receiving yards, 2 touchdowns
Vegas Over/Under Willis McGahee touchdowns: 12. What side do you take? When the dust settles come January, which back will be prove more valuable: McGahee or Rice? Discuss below.
Image courtesy of the AP