Commentary

Can Darren McFadden do it again?

Updated: August 8, 2011, 4:29 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com

What are Darren McFadden's chances at a repeat?

There's a tendency in the fantasy football world to shy from the injury-prone player, especially the one who, on the date of discussion, is battling an injury.

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McFadden is that brittle-in-reputation individual, and as things stand right now, he's out for two weeks due to a broken orbital bone, suffered during an Aug. 3 practice. Between his injury history -- 10 missed games in three NFL seasons -- and this preseason setback, it's understandable that few are willing to invest in him as the No. 6 running back, his final rank at the position in fantasy points in 2010; in ESPN live drafts so far, he's being selected 22nd overall and 12th among running backs (average draft position: 22.5).

I say the news provides the perfect opportunity to pounce.

As Oakland Raiders coach Hue Jackson was quick to point out, this isn't the first time McFadden missed two preseason weeks; the No. 4 overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft sat two weeks last August with a hamstring injury, yet managed a breakout season. And for a running back, there's little question that a hamstring is the more bothersome of the two injuries when projecting forward.

Let's face it, McFadden, from time to time, is going to get hurt. He has missed at least two games in each of his three NFL seasons, and has been listed as questionable or worse on the weekly injury report on 15 occasions. If you draft McFadden, know you're doing so while taking on a noticeable degree of risk.

But I ask: What running back isn't, to some degree, a risk?

Only 12 running backs played all 16 games in 2010 and managed at least 150 fantasy points, and only eight running backs in 2010 managed at least 150 fantasy points after having scored at least that many the season before. Stability is not a strong point of the running back position, and it's for that reason that after the top six choices -- Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Ray Rice and Maurice Jones-Drew, going by current ADP -- are off the board, it's every bit as smart to take a chance on upside as attempting to find a "safe" pick.

McFadden, more than anyone outside that six-man group, represents that "upside."

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireDarren McFadden finished sixth among running backs in standard fantasy scoring last season.

Besides the obvious, surface statistics that were McFadden's 1,664 scrimmage yards, fifth-most in the NFL, and 10 total touchdowns, 13th-most, he was a fantasy dynamo. Christopher Harris' Value Based Drafting (VBD) recap of the 2010 season ranked McFadden the sixth-most valuable overall player (123), and that's despite McFadden missing three games. McFadden's on-field, peripheral statistics also painted the picture of a skilled, well-rounded rusher:

Big-play ability: His 14 carries of 20-plus yards were an NFL best. He also had the fifth-most yards after catch (544) among running backs, and his 11.6 YAC per reception paced his position.

Elite pass catcher: He had the sixth-most receiving yards (507), 11th-most receptions (47) and was 13th-most targeted (57) among running backs.

Scoring threat from anywhere: He had four touchdowns in goal-to-go situations, 20th-most among running backs, three rushing scores of 36-plus yards and two receiving scores of 19-plus yards.

It's that last fact that should somewhat ease the worry about Michael Bush's presence; the restricted free agent re-upped with the Raiders during the weekend to reprise his goal-line back role. Bush did have more overall rushing scores (8) than McFadden (7) in 2010, and had five of the Raiders' seven team rushing touchdowns of three yards or fewer (McFadden and Marcel Reece each had one), but with the exception of the true goal-line opportunities, McFadden is absolutely this team's leading man. Frankly, considering his propensity for injury, it's smart of the Raiders to yank McFadden for the bulkier Bush at the opponent's one.

That's the benefit Bush provides: After a season in which McFadden made good upon his lofty draft-day potential, Bush's role is to ease the physical burden upon the soon-to-be 24-year-old (he'll turn that on Aug. 27). Consider the contributions of each in the 11 games in 2010 in which both were on the active roster:

To put McFadden's numbers into perspective, those weeks included his first-, second-, fourth- and fifth-best single-week performances of the season (No. 3 was a 20-pointer in Week 1), his weekly season average was 16.0 fantasy points per game and he averaged 5.19 yards per carry and 6.16 yards per touch, which means Bush did effectively nothing to detract from his statistical performance. In fact, Bush probably helped; it was only after Bush returned to active duty in Week 3 that McFadden was able to manage a consecutive-games streak of nine (Weeks 7-16), a career high.

In addition, the Raiders' loss of Zach Miller, which some might consider a negative for McFadden because of increased defensive attention in the passing game, shouldn't be a significant concern. Miller missed Week 9 and played through a foot injury from Weeks 8-13, a five-game stretch, in 2010, and during those games McFadden still managed 18 catches … his 3.60 catch-per-game rate during that stretch practically identical to his 3.62 rate in his other eight contests.

New Raiders tight end Kevin Boss, meanwhile, provides the team with an improved run-blocking option albeit less of a receiving threat, meaning his contribution could be a plus for McFadden in both departments; he'd help open more holes for McFadden on the ground and might cede more targets in the receiving game.

But perhaps more important than any positive surrounding McFadden entering NFL Year No. 4 were the glowing reports on his conditioning and camp performance before his injury. For a sampling of some of the early comments:

Contra Costa Times, July 31: "Darren McFadden looks rather serious about reaching the undisclosed lofty goals he set for himself this season. He is making players miss on a routine basis, making sharp cuts into the open field and blowing past would-be tacklers with ease."

Bill Williamson's AFC West Blog, Aug. 5: "Darren McFadden was spectacular during camp before he suffered a broken orbital bone. … The Raiders expect him to make a serious Pro Bowl push."

A sudden injury like a fractured orbital bone can cause us to quickly forget what was building momentum during a player's preseason, but don't let those early thoughts slip away during the time McFadden is recovering. He could be back by the end of next week, step right back into things, have an explosive Aug. 20 (or Aug. 28) preseason performance, and immediately be back in our good graces.

I wouldn't drop him in the rankings, certainly not considering that at his current ADP, he was already a relative bargain.

Tristan H. Cockcroft is a fantasy football analyst for ESPN.com. You can email him here, or follow him on Twitter @SultanofStat.