Darren McFadden: Potential Value or Lost Cause?
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Darren McFadden was popped with the fourth pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and it was easy to see why the Raiders fell in love with the Arkansas Razorback. He finished as the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2006 and 2007 and ran for more than 1,100 yards while reaching double digits in rushing touchdowns in all three of his collegiate seasons. In all, he ran for 4,590 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 41 touchdowns while chipping in another 365 yards receiving on 46 receptions. He followed up his wildly successful college career with a 4.33 second 40-yard dash time, and with Al Davis still running the show for the guys donning the black and silver, that might have meant more to assure his draft slot than his actual on-field production. McFadden is now a veteran of seven seasons and has just one season on his resume in which he eclipsed 1,000 yards rushing, also his only season besting 1,000 yards from scrimmage. In other words, he’s failed to live up to the expectations bestowed upon him with his high draft selection. As a free agent, he signed with the Cowboys, and that means a change of scenery. Will it matter?
Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. I’ll start with the bad news. Run DMC is joining a team that deploys a zone-blocking scheme. After struggling in 2012 under offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, the former Razorback voiced his displeasure with the zone-blocking scheme and shared his joy of returning to a traditional power running system. Bob Sturm of the Dallas Morning News brought up the concerns about McFadden meshing with the zone-blocking scheme back in May, but at the time, he’d yet to get any comments from McFadden regarding his feelings about running in the Cowboys’ zone-blocking scheme. That said, it’s likely he would have given the typical optimistic and boring responses to questions we’ve become accustomed to from athletes. Point being, the system might not be a fit for McFadden, and that alone is reason to temper expectations. He’s also entangled in what looks like a RBBC situation with Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar in the mix for touches. It’s also possible when cap casualties crop up, that others could be added to the mix, but it warrants mentioning that the Cowboys didn’t feel the need to draft a running back. Perhaps they are actually content with the backs they have and plan on allowing undrafted rookies to compete for a roster spot and playing time. The competition for playing time is less concerning than the possibility of McFadden not fitting the zone-blocking scheme, because none of the other backs appear poised to run away with the job. And while McFadden’s resume isn’t exciting, it is more distinguished than any other runner in the competition for touches.
The good news is that the soon to be 28-year-old running back will be playing with the best quarterback of his career and running behind the best offensive line he’s ever had paving the way for him. The offenses the Raiders trotted out during McFadden’s tenure were putrid with them ranking inside the top 10 in points just once (2010) and ranking 24th or worst in five of the seven seasons. Last year, the Cowboys ranked fifth in points scored offensively. Furthermore, Tony Romo is light years ahead of any signal caller McFadden played with, and more importantly, ditto on the gap between the offensive lines trotted out in Oakland compared to what he’ll be running behind with the Cowboys.
Pro Football Focus grades many aspects of the game, and one is run blocking. In McFadden’s seven-year tenure with the Raiders, they never ranked in the top 10 in the league in run blocking, and only once, 2010, did they rank in the top half of the league in run blocking (11th that season). Five times the Raiders ranked 24th or worst in run blocking, per Pro Football Focus. Surprise, surprise, McFadden’s best season took place in 2010 when he ran for 1,157 yards at 5.2 yards per carry in 13 games played while adding 47 receptions and 507 yards receiving and 10 total touchdowns (seven rushing, three receiving). He now joins a team that boasts one of the best offensive line units in the league, and not just anecdotally, they have the grades to back it up. The Cowboys have graded out as a top-10 run-blocking unit in each of the last three years ranking 10th in 2012, third in 2013 and second last year. Let me reiterate this, the Raiders never posted a top-10 mark in run blocking grades while McFadden was there, and the Cowboys have done so in each of the last three years. He essentially traded in a pizza box shield for the heavy duty goodies sported by the guys in the movie 300.
Run DMC checks in as the 39th ranking back in the expert consensus rankings for standard leagues. Teammate Randle ranks 11 spots higher, and I’d prefer the lower ranked back in this case. It’s not hard to imagine McFadden struggling to produce or failing to stay healthy (last season was the first in which he played in all 16 games, his previous high was 13), but at his current cost, there is plenty of upside for him to provide a positive return on a minimal investment.