OWINGS MILLS -- When fullback Ovie Mughelli bolted out of the Baltimore Ravens' backfield this offseason for richer pastures, it created a blocking void, spurred a brewing competition and started a lingering question mark.
While the defending AFC North champions have two qualified job candidates in veteran Justin Green and burly rookie draft pick Le'Ron McClain, the Ravens have repeatedly made it clear that the I-formation is no longer in vogue.
With Jamal Lewis now playing for the Cleveland Browns, it reduced the necessity for a rugged lead blocker. Which begs the question: How important is the fullback to this offense?
With new running back Willis McGahee, the Ravens plan to emphasize more one-back formations to take advantage of his versatility and get more receivers and tight ends on the field. That doesn't mean the fullback won't still be needed several times per game.
"Whenever you're on the field, you definitely have to make it count to leave an impression," McClain said as the Ravens concluded their final June minicamp. "You've got to be physical and knock somebody down. The coaches tell us the fullback is still very much needed in this offense."
Regardless of the fullbacks' possible decreased workload, especially compared to how the team once utilized Sam Gash and Alan Ricard, this figures to be a hotly-contested position when training camp opens.
"Every day you're fighting for a job and nothing is guaranteed to you, so I go into this looking to compete," Green said. "I wouldn't expect the young buck to not give everything he has, and vice versa. May the best man play."
Determining who's best suited for a new-look offense will mean gauging which fullback's skill set is likely to mesh best with McGahee.
Green is a 5-foot-11, 251-pound converted college tailback who suffered a knee injury against the Cincinnati Bengals last November that required surgery and forced him onto injured reserve.
McClain is a highly-regarded 6-foot, 260-pounder drafted in the fourth round out of Alabama.
While McClain primarily was drafted because of his penchant for decking linebackers, he demonstrated soft hands during minicamp drills. At Alabama, he caught 48 career passes for 570 yards and eight touchdowns.
"I'm an all-around back, which is probably what the Ravens drafted me for," said McClain, who rushed for 170 career yards and two touchdowns in college with 48 career receptions for 570 yards and eight touchdowns. "I'm not here just for the isolation block. I can get out there and run routes, catch the ball and pass protect. It's a wide-open competition."
The Crimson Tide averaged 123.1 rushing yards per contest last season, totaling 3,310 rushing yards during McClain's junior and senior years.
Many scouting services rated McClain as the top pure fullback in the draft.
"It was amazing the number of text messages and calls that we got from other teams around the league that had similar feelings that we did about Le'Ron," Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome said after drafting McClain in April.
Green remains on track to recover from an injury that included damage to his anterior cruciate ligament and patellar tendon. He has been rehabbing diligently and working his way through scar tissue to regain flexibility and explosiveness.
"It's all really coming back to me," said Green, who has seven career NFL starts and 11 career receptions for 49 yards. "I'm teaching my leg in six months what it took me 25 years to get. I'm very happy with the results."
It didn't go unnoticed by Green, who's entering the final year of his contract, how Mughelli propelled himself into free agency last year and signed a six-year, $18 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons that's the richest fullback contract in NFL history.
"He caught on fire and was able to market himself," Green said. "That's the kind of year you hope for. I'm trying to do something along the same lines."
Meanwhile, McClain has been working hard to try to trim down to 250 pounds. And he's beginning to get over being star-struck whenever he runs into All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis and Co.
"I watched all these guys growing up, and now I'm on the same team with them," McClain said. "I know if I can block these guys, I can block anybody in the league."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.
Fullback competition looms
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