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Wounded pride

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The Baltimore Ravens made several smart moves on their way to a Super Bowl title last season. Acquiring tight end Shannon Sharpe in the offseason and making quarterback Trent Dilfer the starter at midseason turned out to be two of the team's wisest decisions.

But Baltimore's string of smart maneuvers actually began on draft day. With the fifth overall pick, the Ravens selected running back Jamal Lewis. Head coach Brian Billick and personnel director Ozzie Newsome were only concerned with Lewis' talent and upside, not the major knee injury he suffered during his career at the University of Tennessee.

Deuce McAllister can only hope more teams will adopt Baltimore's draft strategy this year.

"When Jamal was at Tennessee, the rap on him was that he's an injury-prone guy," McAllister said. "You see what he did for Baltimore this year. In my mind, I know I'm not an injury-prone guy. I've just had some bad luck with injuries in the past couple of years."

Nagging shoulder, hamstring and ankle injuries didn't prevent McAllister from producing during his senior season at the University of Mississippi. McAllister was limited to 767 yards, but he led the Southeastern Conference with 17 touchdowns.

Most draft experts agree that the 6-foot-1, 220-pound McAllister is the most complete running back available, but that doesn't mean he'll be the first back selected. As much as teams are aware of McAllister's refined skills and amazing versatility, they are just as cognizant of his past injuries, which also included back problems.

McAllister is convinced his health concerns are behind him. He's changed his conditioning program, focusing on flexibility instead of bulk, and has become a student of injury prevention.

"I worked out at the University of Pittsburgh medical center, and I worked daily with doctors and trainers, " he said. "A lot of the things I've been doing now are injury prevention type of exercises.

"In the past, I was working out basically just to work out. Now, I'm developing the smaller muscles as well as all of my larger muscles."

Even though McAllister endured AC joint sprains in both shoulders the last two years, he has no doubt he can shoulder the burden of carrying an NFL offense.

In his mind, no other running back coming out can match his breadth of skills.

"Right now, I can line up as a receiver either in the flat or as a split end," said McAllister, who rushed for 809 yards and caught 20 passes for 201 yards as a junior. "I think that's one of the things that I offer. I'm also a punt and kickoff returner. The versatility factor is going to play a major role in who drafts me."

The Cleveland Browns, owners of the third overall pick and desperately seeking ways to complement quarterback Tim Couch, are one of McAllister's possible suitors. The New England Patriots, seemingly always in search of a reliable running back, could be targeting McAllister with the sixth pick.

McAllister, who expects to be taken in the Top 10, would embrace the challenge of being one of the Browns' major building blocks.

"With coach Butch Davis and Mr. (Bruce) Arians as offensive coordinator, considering some of the things he has done in the past with Edgerrin James, I think I would fit in well," McAllister said. "With the type of players that they have, especially with Tim Couch, a lot of the pressure wouldn't be put on myself to come in and be the savior."

Every team will have the chance to evaluate McAllister during his private workout on March 21. McAllister is eager to put his talent on display, but he won't be able to satisfy every skeptic in one day. The questions about his health will remain.

Until McAllister's NFL career begins to unfold, however, the durability issue is moot. The smartest thing he can do now is remain positive — even if more adversity comes his way.

"If I have a breakout year, that will be great," McAllister said. "If I have a subpar year, I'll continue to learn. I won't get down on myself because I believe in my talent and what I can do."

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