- Bill Williamson, ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter
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A game-breaker at Arkansas, McFadden had the look of a player who would be a change-of-pace back who could help the Raiders in certain situations. Early in his fourth season, however, McFadden has blown past Bush on the running back pecking order. Truth be told, McFadden is closer to Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson than he is to Bush.
McFadden has developed into Oakland’s best offensive player and he is a primary reason why there is legitimate playoff hope for a team that hasn’t been to the postseason since 2002. The New York Jets’ vaunted defense hits Oakland on Sunday, and trying to stop McFadden will be Job 1.
Raiders offensive coordinator Al Saunders has been around Hall of Fame running backs such as Marcus Allen and Marshall Faulk in his 28-year career as an NFL coach. He thinks McFadden is one of the best tailbacks he has seen.
“I’ve been fortunate to be around some great running backs, but he’s one of those guys you put in that class,” Saunders said. “He’s a young kid that has just tremendous speed and tremendous potential, he catches the ball extremely well and I think he established what he is last year and he’s continuing to follow in that way this year.”
After his first two seasons were sullied by injuries, McFadden became a legitimate bell-cow back last year when he ran for 1,157 yards. He averaged a stout 5.2 yards per carry. McFadden is off to a fine start this season with 222 yards (7 yards behind Buffalo’s Fred Jackson for the NFL lead) on 42 carries, an average of 5.3 yards a carry. McFadden led the NFL in runs of 20 yards or more last season. He has three 20-plus runs already this season.
“He’s become a complete player,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said of McFadden. “I’ve become a believer.”
While McFadden will always be known for his speed, what is helping him become a special NFL player is his versatility and toughness. He's not just a fly-and-bye player. He has fine hands (he had seven catches for 71 yards in a loss at Buffalo last week) as a receiver and he has become a viable inside runner. Unlike Bush, McFadden (6-foot-2, 210 pounds) isn’t afraid to go inside.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, McFadden averaged 5.4 yards up the middle against the Broncos in a Week 1 win.
“I think people really don’t know that about me,” said McFadden, who was a star high school safety in North Little Rock, Ark. “I’m very proud of my ability to go inside. I think that is important for a back to go inside as well as outside and I like being tough and going inside.”
Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour said McFadden must rank among the NFL’s best backs because of his toughness.
“Going against him in nine-on-seven drills in camp, you can see how special he is,” Seymour said. “He goes strong inside unlike guys with his speed. But if you are waiting for him to come hard inside, he can always pop one and be gone. He is a nightmare to prepare for because you don’t know which way he is going to go.”
When he was traded to Oakland from Washington last year, quarterback Jason Campbell admitted he didn’t know too much about McFadden, who had only 217 total carries in his first two NFL seasons. However, Campbell was pleasantly surprised to find out he has a versatile back to work with.
“Nationally, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves,” Campbell said. “This is a complete back. He does it all for our offense. People don’t realize how tough this guy is.”
Never one to shy away from contact, McFadden’s preseason was snuffed out when he broke his orbital bone in an early-camp practice after making a big block on an linebacker. While McFadden is rough and tumble, there are durability concerns. He missed 10 games in his first three NFL seasons. But that's not going to keep him from playing running back the way he does.
“I’m a physical guy,” McFadden said. "I’m going to put my shoulder down and get after it and try to make every play I can.”
That doesn’t sound like your ordinary change-of-pace back.
When the Oakland Raiders took Darren McFadden with the No. 4 overall draft pick in 2008, the general consensus was that they would be getting a Reggie Bush-type tailback.