What Does Willis McGahee Still Offer at This Stage in His Career?
If Willis McGahee is fully recovered from a significant knee injury, the recently released veteran can still offer a three-down running back with toughness between the tackles for teams in need of depth at the position.
The Denver Broncos sent McGahee packing Thursday, per Adam Schefter of ESPN. The soon-to-be 32-year-old told ESPN's Josina Anderson that he "knew" his release was coming, but that he "will keep playing."
McGahee included the Miami Dolphins, Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders as potential landing spots, although it's not currently known if any of the listed franchises share any mutual interest.
For starters, any club looking to sign McGahee will likely want to know everything it can about his recovery from last season's knee injury.
McGahee, who has a history of significant knee injuries, tore his right MCL and suffered a compression fracture of his knee during a Week 11 contest against the Chargers. The injury did not require surgery, but it still kept McGahee out for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.
McGahee has since skipped all voluntary work for the Broncos, showing up for only the mandatory minicamp earlier this month. According to Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post, McGahee was a limited participant despite being medically cleared to practice fully.
While his release by the Broncos may be much more of a numbers decision than completely injury-related, teams will still want to run McGahee through a full physical to make sure the knee isn't going to be an issue down the line.
If the medicals check out, McGahee can provide a tough, versatile and, potentially, cheap option on the free-agent market.
After spending three productive years with the Buffalo Bills and four more with the Baltimore Ravens, McGahee has provided the Broncos with a consistent between-the-tackles runner since 2011.
Over 25 games with Denver the past two seasons, McGahee has rushed for 1,930 yards and eight touchdowns. His 77.2 rushing yards a game and 4.64 yards per carry are both 10th-best among running backs with at least 300 total carries since 2011.
The veteran back has continued to be a productive back on the interior.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), McGahee was averaging nearly 4.8 yards per carry on runs inside the left and right guards when he suffered his season-ending injury last season. The year prior, when McGahee rushed for 1,340 yards over 17 games (including playoffs), he averaged 4.7 on inside runs.
McGahee's ability to pound the rock between the tackles has fueled a long and productive career. Since 2004, only Steven Jackson, Frank Gore and Adrian Peterson have rushed for more yards among active running backs (per Pro Football Reference). His 33 100-yard games are the most at his position during the same time span.
Part of his production stems from his tough running style, which has provided 52 broken tackles and a 2.7-yard average after contact over the last two seasons. In 2011, his last full season, McGahee finished at No. 6 overall on PFF's Elusive Rating (subscription required), which brings into context a running back's ability to create on his own via missed tackles and yards after contact.
His breakaway speed may no longer be present (McGahee had just two runs over 20 yards last season), but few are as good at breaking tackle attempts and picking up the tough yards in the middle of the field.
However, McGahee's contributions are not limited to running the football. While somewhat limited in terms of big-play ability in the passing game (he averages just 6.5 yards per catch in his career), McGahee does have 202 career receptions. Arguably his best season catching the football came last season, when McGahee hauled in 26 catches for 221 yards.
Darren Sproles he is not, but catching the football isn't a foreign task to McGahee.
Furthermore, the veteran back is able to stay on the field during passing downs because of his ability to contribute in pass protection.
According to PFF, McGahee finished 15th among running backs in pass protection last season despite playing only 399 total snaps. He allowed just two total pressures (two hurries) over 47 pass-blocking opportunities.
The year prior, McGahee gave up just a single hurry in pass protection. Some backs need to come off the field in passing situations, or they shy away from stepping into an oncoming blitzer. These descriptions do not apply to McGahee.
Despite possessing such a versatile skill set, McGahee simply ran into the buzzsaw that has claimed a number of running backs over the years. Now that he's over 30 and coming off a significant injury, McGahee's release was far from a surprise decision by Denver.
Where is Willis McGahee's best fit?
The Broncos will now move on with young backs in 2013 second-rounder Montee Ball and 2012 third-rounder Ronnie Hillman.
McGahee will enter a still-crowded free-agent running back class that includes Michael Turner, Beanie Wells, Cedric Benson, Peyton Hillis and Brandon Jacobs.
Turner has been productive for the Atlanta Falcons, and Wells is still only 24 years old, but McGahee is likely the best of the remaining bunch. And he likely won't cost much to obtain, as he was scheduled to make just $2.5 million in 2013 with the Broncos.
Despite approaching 32 years old, McGahee has a combination of interior running skills and three-down ability that give him an appealing package to teams that need depth at the running back position.
His knee injury will need to check out, but it wouldn't be at all surprising if Willis McGahee is the first running back from the above list to find a home.
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