He already is drawing comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He already is creating a major buzz in the fantasy world. Darren McFadden, the newest Oakland Raider, will be under the microscope from fantasy owners in all formats in 2008. He is a major prize in dynasty leagues, has outstanding upside in keeper leagues and no doubt will be an early-round pick in yearly leagues.
Yet no one in yearly leagues seems to be quite sure just yet what to expect from McFadden or where to draft him. Many fantasy football drafts are still approximately three months away, yet dedicated owners are counting the minutes until then and speculating about McFadden. Can he emerge as a major fantasy standout the way Peterson did a year ago?
The Contra Costa Times has reported that returning veteran Justin Fargas is still expected to open the 2008 season as the lead back for Oakland, with McFadden initially expected to be worked into the mix as part of a time-share. Michael Bush still might figure into the picture as a short-yardage and goal-line back. Dominic Rhodes has been cut loose, and LaMont Jordan remains on the roster only as trade bait -- if any other team is interested. Otherwise, Jordan might be released soon.
Fargas had the best season of his career in 2007, and he can ensure that Oakland doesn't have to rush McFadden into a primary role. Yet although Fargas gives the Raiders a sense of comfort that they can have at least two quality running backs at their disposal, McFadden can be most like Peterson in the respect that he will simply be too productive and explosive not to take center stage at some point in his rookie season. Most of us remember that Peterson was projected to sit behind Chester Taylor early in his first pro season, but there was no way he was going to be denied the spotlight. Now, many fantasy owners will be willing to take Peterson with the first overall pick in 2008, even though LaDainian Tomlinson is still a better choice because of his versatility and proven track record.
There are more parallels between the situations of Peterson and McFadden when you look at the surrounding players on offense. Like Peterson in Minnesota, McFadden will not be helped by a shaky passing game. The Raiders and Vikings both have young, inexperienced quarterbacks and questionable receiving crews. JaMarcus Russell isn't going to scare defenses yet, and the additions of Javon Walker and Drew Carter won't mean a major upgrade, either. Injuries have clouded Walker's outlook and made us all wonder whether he can ever regain top form, and Carter doesn't appear capable of being a prime target. The Oakland passing game was inefficient last season, and the newcomers certainly are not guaranteed to help too much.
Peterson overcame such obstacles last season, yet he played behind one of the league's best offensive lines. McFadden won't have that luxury, for sure. So initially, McFadden will have to face two obstacles: He will have to win more playing time over Fargas, and defenses will focus heavily on him every time he appears on the field. McFadden can catch passes out of the backfield, which will help him get loose for some big plays, but fantasy players in yearly leagues cannot get overexcited about him based on talent alone. McFadden certainly will have a few impressive performances, but it might be too much to expect him to develop into a top fantasy starter right away.
Honestly, I have never been a big Fargas backer, and his fine 2007 season was something of a surprise to me. He was playing in a contract season, and though the drafting of McFadden might further motivate him to keep his starting job, it is indeed just a matter of time before the rookie passes him on the depth chart. McFadden is obviously the future of the franchise, along with Russell, and Oakland didn't draft him to sit. Once it becomes clear the Raiders won't be making the playoffs again in 2008, McFadden will get featured more prominently in the offense -- if he doesn't seize the job sooner and live up to his potential even sooner than expected.
Still, fantasy players should temper their expectations in yearly leagues initially and not spend a first-round pick on a rookie who won't start immediately and has a questionable supporting cast. There is no doubt McFadden has a tremendous amount of upside, but he won't be reliable for fantasy purposes right away. I would initially target him as a late second-round pick at best and draft another running back early who could start right away if McFadden doesn't get enough work or make enough of an impact early in the schedule.
McFadden will have a few outings that can help your team win, but he will be best projected as a flex player with the chance to become a fine No. 2 fantasy running back. If he explodes and plays well enough to become a No. 1 guy, consider that a bonus in 2008. McFadden has incredible upside, but don't draft him based on promise or comparison to Peterson. Be conservative and don't expect him to be your franchise player right away, and you certainly should not use your first-rounder on him in yearly leagues. He might look like a first-rounder at times, but you can't center your squad and fortunes on a rookie in a less-than-ideal situation.
R.J. (Detroit): My worst fears were confirmed when Oakland picked McFadden on Saturday. I'm in a 10-team keeper league and have the first pick in this year's draft. My plan was to keep Marshawn Lynch and Plaxico Burress, and draft McFadden with the No. 1 overall selection. Would I be better off keeping Lynch and Ronnie Brown and going in another direction with my pick? I have been concerned about Brown's recovery and now have to worry about Run DMC playing in that running back wasteland.
Engel: I think you should stick with your current plan, R.J. You can't overreact to the Raiders' short-term outlook in a keeper or dynasty league because McFadden is destined for superstardom and eventually will form a tremendous backfield combination with Russell. Also, Oakland certainly is not a "running back wasteland," as Fargas proved last season. Lynch and McFadden will make your fantasy team a strong contender for many years, and Burress will have another fine year as Eli Manning proves his postseason success was no fluke. I'm not worried about Brown's recovery -- which, according to a recent report in The Miami Herald, is going very well -- but I like McFadden better in the long term and still think you should draft him first overall.
Engel: It's not an easy choice, but I would have to agree with your line of thinking, Jeremy. Edwards has arrived as an elite fantasy wide receiver, and though Holt certainly still is not finished, you'll get much more mileage out of younger Edwards. Jones-Drew, as you well know, can be explosive, but with Addai and Lynch, you will have two guys who can be No. 1 fantasy running backs. Lynch will be more dependable than Jones-Drew as he continues to improve and evolve in his second and third pro seasons.
Engel: It might surprise you and some other readers, David, but I have to go with Brown here. Brown is expected to be ready for training camp after undergoing knee surgery, and he should be more productive over the long haul even if he doesn't produce as hoped early in 2008. Brown played at a very high level at times last year, and he still has promise as a pass-catcher. He'll be a central point of Miami's rebuilding offense and eventually should regain top form. Jacobs will not get enough regular work to consider him over the other guys you mention, and the retirement of Brett Favre means you cannot depend on Grant, either. Barber will share some carries with Felix Jones and will continue to be statistically inconsistent. Brown can still be the main man for the Dolphins. None of your picks is a sure thing, but I like Brown best once he shows he is in good health again.
Scott Engel covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can contact Scott here.