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Under the Microscope: Darren McFadden

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The fourth overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft, Darren McFadden has been a black hole for fantasy football players in his first two years in the league. Last spring and summer, he received rave reviews from reporters including David White of the San Francisco Chronicle and Jerry McDonald from the Contra Costa Times who were present at the teams OTA’s and mini-camp, only to come out and have a 4 touchdown-499 yard rushing season. Whoop-Dee-Doo! The upcoming season could prove to be McFadden’s last chance of impressing the boss, Al Davis. If he fails to impress, then everyone will be talking bust about two of the last three Raiders draft picks.

What does McFadden need to do to once again dawn the image of the player he was projected to be coming out of college? So far, his college teammate, Felix Jones’ 6.5 yards per carry dwarfs McFadden’s 3.9 yards per rush average. Jones has outgained McFadden by 95 yards, in spite of the fact that he has had 71 fewer career carries and played in five fewer games than McFadden.

Now, one could blame the offensive lines of the two teams as the difference maker, but that doesn’t account for the fact that the Raiders were 10th in the league in rushing in McFadden’s rookie year. The Raiders did experience a drop off in their 2009 numbers, but much of that was due to poor play calling by current head coach and former offensive coordinator, Tom Cable, in addition to the fact that for much of the year the Raiders lacked the threat of a passing game, and had JaMarcus Russell turning the ball over to the other teams defense.

Now that the coordinating responsibilities are removed from Cable’s agenda, the expectation is that there will be an improvement in the performance of the offensive line with Cable being able to refocus his attention to that group in particular. I fully expect the Raiders to be able to run the ball better in 2010. In addition to Cable’s re-focus on the line, the quarterback play---and thus the passing offense---should improve if Bruce Gradkowski is given the keys to the offense from opening day.

So can the Raiders expect McFadden’s numbers to improve under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson? Time will tell, but so far in his career, McFadden’s inability to break free of first contact and his proneness to fumbling prove to be a big obstacle in his path to becoming an elite NFL halfback. He is a big guy at 6’2" and 210 pounds, but the knock on McFadden has always been a lack of strength in his lower body…in addition to the aforementioned fumbling problems.

In the latter part of the season, the Raiders may have found a suitable position in their offense for McFadden, on the outside as a wide receiver.  The further the season progressed, the more McFadden was used on the outside. The troubling part with this scenario is that McFadden is un-sculpted as a route runner. Thus, he would mostly run slant routes, which ultimately began to get picked up by opposing defenses, leading to jumped routes and interceptions. With the projects the Raiders already have cut out for them at wide receiver, trying to teach McFadden to run NFL type routes might not be a top priority, but it may be worth exploring as an option.

Receiver, however, is an area where McFadden has not been topped by former college teammates Felix Jones. Darren has caught 50 career passes compared to Felix’s 21 catches. McFadden has 530 yards receiving compared to Jones’ 129 yards, and McFadden averages over 10 yards per catch while Jones averages just over six yards per catch. In his rookie year, McFadden caught more passes than any Raiders wide receiver, although he trailed Johnnie Lee Higgins in yardage. In 2009, he was fourth on the team, behind only tight end Zach Miller, wide receiver Chaz Schilens, who missed half of the season with a broken foot, and rookie stand-out wide out Louis Murphy.

I’ve always contested that McFadden should be used like Reggie Bush was used in his rookie season. That year, Reggie caught 88 passes while playing a ton of time as a wide receiver and he went on to win the award for NFL Offensive Rookie Of  The Year. McFadden is what some would consider an old style wing back. He is best suited to play at this level as an outside threat rather than an "Up-the-gut" or a "Between the tackles" runner. Perhaps his greatest strength at this level would be as a wide out, maybe in the slot with his tremendous speed, great hands, and good size, creating mismatches for opponents by lining up against some linebackers and third string cornerbacks.

He could also be effective as a return man. That is an area where the Raiders struggled feverishly last year with injuries to their two potential returners, Johnnie Lee Higgins and undrafted free agent rookie wide receiver Nick Miller. The Raiders were in such desperate need that they actually resorted to using two different fullbacks to return kickoffs for them. McFadden could prove to be very refreshing for Raiders fans if he can do it without fumbling.

Whatever the position McFadden finds in this offense the fact remains that he needs to find it this season. Levi "Dizzle" Damien is already calling for the trade of McFadden to be the Raiders next offseason move. In his article, he claims that the value the Raiders will get for McFadden is slowly dwindling into dismalness and his value on the current roster is less than favorable for the team.

McFadden must make an impression on the field this year if he wants to avoid being talked about as the Raiders next first round bust. This time next year, fans could be calling for his head in addition to his teammates JaMarcus Russell’s. Like Russell, he has the talent. The thing for the Raiders is to find out how to get the best out of his abilities…if he can stay on the field.

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