When to take plunge on McFadden?

Injury history complicates fantasy draft-day decision

Updated: July 31, 2012, 10:51 AM ET
By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

How high should oft-injured Darren McFadden go in fantasy drafts?

Decisions 2012

Of the NFL running backs whose health and/or committee situations will drive fantasy owners up a tree this year, none is more vexing than McFadden. When he's right, Run-DMC is an all-around star. He is 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds and packs a wallop. He is a 4.33 40 runner, putting him among the fastest backs in the league. He has soft hands as a pass receiver and runs solid routes out of the backfield.

The other injury-risk running back question marks who might be considered in the same fantasy neighborhood as McFadden are plentiful (Ryan Mathews and DeMarco Murray come to mind), but no one has DMC's upside. A healthy McFadden could be the 2012 fantasy MVP. It's just not likely that we'll ever get to find out.

McFadden lost nine games last season to a foot sprain, and in the three seasons before that, he missed 10 of a possible 48 contests due to toe, knee and hamstring issues. It's not that DMC is a contact-seeking missile more prone to injury-causing collisions than an average back. Four years into his NFL career, it's disingenuous to proclaim that the former No. 4 overall draft pick is unlucky. Nor am I willing to call him soft, because I'm certain that if I had to spend even one day in McFadden's shoes, I would no longer be roaming the planet.

But something is up. The Oakland Raiders say he looked healthy this spring and that he is in fine shape heading into camp. I'm sure they have McFadden on a rigorous program to keep his oft-pulled leg muscles untorn. But if you can sit there and tell me with a straight face that you believe this guy will play the full 16 this season, you're a braver soul than I am.

[+] EnlargeDarren McFadden
AP Photo/Derek GeeDarren McFadden averages 4.8 yards per carry and 10.3 yards per catch in his career, but he has never played more than 13 games in a season.

So what do you do with him in your fantasy draft? I suppose it's a matter of personal breaking points. How many players who offer a better combination of upside and safety have to get drafted until it makes sense to assume the Run-DMC risk? McFadden is the Michael Vick of RBs; you have to plan your team around his presumed absences.

Despite the fact that I think DMC is a more naturally talented player than any of these backs, I wouldn't draft him as long as Matt Forte, Mathews, Marshawn Lynch (assuming he doesn't wind up earning a suspension for 2012, which I'm guessing he won't) or Murray is still on the board. Similarly, I'm willing to eschew the running back position if it comes down to taking McFadden or, say, Andre Johnson, Greg Jennings or Cam Newton.

Bottom line: I have DMC ranked No. 10 among running backs and No. 20 overall.

That's a conservative ranking. The Raiders allowed goal-line back and safety net Michael Bush walk in free agency this spring and brought in Carolina castoff Mike Goodson as a backup. (There's still a possibility Oakland could add a veteran such as Cedric Benson or Ryan Grant, but it hasn't happened yet.) Goodson and Taiwan Jones represent the depth behind McFadden, which means the Raiders hardly have any depth at all. Goodson had a nice month with the Panthers two years ago, but he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. Jones is an undersized home-run hitter who also has durability questions. As long as he's healthy, McFadden figures to be his own goal-line caddie, meaning he'd be a great bet to top his career-high seven rushing touchdown from 2010. By policy, he likely won't come out in passing situations. Indeed, a healthy DMC would have a chance to lead the league in touches.

But I'm not willing to reach for the guy. I tend to be conservative in the early rounds, living with the maxim that you can't win your league with your first- or second-round pick, but you can lose it. Other fantasy owners may look at the shaky state of running backs this year and conclude that just about every back outside, say, the top five presents enormous risk, so why not take the risky guy who could be fantasy's No. 1 player? When he was healthy in 2011, DMC averaged almost 127 yards from scrimmage per game.

If this is the year McFadden stays healthy, you'll reap tremendous value. But if he's going to miss multiple games again -- especially games toward the end of the season -- he is a first- or second-round pick you're likely to regret.