Fantasy Football 2011: The Curious Case of Darren McFadden

July 13 6:25pm

When the once-revered wrecking ball that is Darren McFadden was in college at Arkansas, most scouts pegged him as a future NFL star, and though his detractors were among the loudest and most confident voices, they were hard to locate in the din. Before the 2008 NFL Draft, there was a general consensus that McFadden – despite some character concerns that stemmed from nightclub altercations and paternity issues – was the best running back available, and that he was nearly a lock for the No. 4 overall pick, which went to Oakland. As the fates would have it, the consensus was spot on. “Run DMC” was taken by the Raiders after OT Jake Long, DE Chris Long, and QB Matt Ryan, and I nearly felt obligated to tip my cap to Al Davis for not blundering yet another first-round selection.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Oakland Coliseum. Soon after camp began, the chatter began to pick up steam, and pretty soon, everybody was queuing up to disparage McFadden. His legs were too thin. He wasn’t much of a blocker. He was injury-prone and has inconsistent technique as a runner. A turf toe injury early in 2008 seemed to support these claims, and before you know it, RUN DMC was off the map like it was the mid 90s. The highly touted back was as quiet as one of Al Davis’ interns, totaling just 856 rushing yards and five TDs on 217 carries (that’s fewer than four yards per carry) in his first two seasons with Oakland.

So, as fantasy football mavens prepared for their 2010 drafts, McFadden didn’t get much respect. The Raiders were terrible, Michael Bush was the starter, and the sheen was gone from McFadden’s sparkling pre-NFL scouting report. Then, the fates intervened. Bush broke his thumb in late August, requiring surgery and several weeks off. With the door open for McFadden, a few folks (including me) jumped on board in fantasy drafts, reaching a round or two earlier with the news that the undeniably talented back would get the Week 1 start.

McFadden responded with 345 yards and a rushing TD in his first three games (which also included a Week 1 receiving TD) before a hamstring injury sidelined him in Week 4. He had outperformed expectations during that window, but the hammy issue was a big blow, especially with Michael Bush returning to action. As it turns out, McFadden is the guy we thought he was in college. Despite questionable status heading into  Week 7 versus the Broncos, McFadden exploded for his best game as a pro, scampering for three rushing TDs (16 carries for 165 yards) and a receiving score (2-31-1). He didn’t reach the end zone again until December, but that was a good month (570 total yards and four TDs in four games), and a fine way to close out his breakout season.

So heading into 2011, fantasy owners have to consider whether McFadden’s body can hold up. His talent and ability is no longer in question. As for me, I’m reaching maybe a half-round or more earlier than his ADP come draft day, largely because I covet home run hitting backs who can make an impact with limited touches. With many committee and time share situations in every backfield, backs like McFadden are a prized commodity.

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