Last season, the Raiders were trying to figure out how LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes were going to split carries. But by the end of the season, it was longtime bench guy Justin Fargas who emerged as the main man, rushing for 1,009 yards and four TDs despite starting just seven games. He even earned ESPN Fantasy Hall of Fame honors in the process.
Despite that great season, which also netted him a three-year, $12 million deal, the Raiders still went out and took Darren McFadden with the fourth-overall pick in the draft. So like last season, the Raiders have to figure out how to dole out the carries, although they've got at least two solid options at their disposal. Committee systems might not be the favorite of fantasy owners, but it does seem to work for a number of teams. With the passing game still a major question mark with JaMarcus Russell entering his first full season as the starter, the Raiders should be counting on their running game a lot. Last season, they ranked sixth in the league with 130.4 rushing yards per game and were fourth in carries 508, so they're committed to the run.
That commitment means Fargas and McFadden should each get enough carries to stay fantasy relevant. Fargas has been anointed the team's starter and has been treated as such so far this preseason, as he's been limited to just eight carries for 28 yards in the Raiders' first two preseason games. There's no need to expose him to injury when the team knows what they're getting from him, especially since Fargas missed the final two games of last season with a sprained MCL and has had a history of injury issues during his career.
Meanwhile, McFadden has gotten 18 carries for 92 yards in his first two preseason games, and has made a couple of big plays to get Raiders fans and fantasy owners excited about his prospects for this season and beyond. While he was going to get his share of carries because of his draft status, he's at least proving he deserves them.
Obviously, McFadden has the most upside, given his speed and big-play ability. He can also carry the bulk of the rushing load if need be, although he can share carries as well, as seen in his arrangement with Felix Jones during their three years together at Arkansas.
However, Fargas is the starter and probably gets the first crack carrying the load to open the season, with McFadden getting in a healthy share of touches as the Raiders figure out how best to use him. But just because you're officially the starter doesn't mean you're the one with the most fantasy value, either. Julius Jones started all 16 games in the regular season for the Cowboys last season, although Marion Barber was obviously the better back. During the Colts' 2006 Super Bowl campaign, Rhodes started all 16 regular-season games over Joseph Addai, but Addai had the better fantasy season (and eventually became the starter during the playoffs).
But this situation looks a lot like what the Vikings had last season with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Peterson was the hot-shot rookie that was drafted despite a big season from Taylor, a former backup who thrived when given a chance to start. Yes, they split carries and starting assignments (and they even started one game together), but in the end, Peterson finished with 238 carries for 1,341 yards and 13 total TDs, while Taylor finished with 157 carries for 844 yards and seven scores. Taylor was officially the starter in Week 1, but Peterson was the guy with all the stats in the game. As the season progressed, Taylor often gave way to Peterson in terms of overall numbers, but was able to pick up some of the slack when Peterson injured his knee late in the season.
It will be asking a lot for McFadden to match Peterson's overall production from last season (although the expectations are already high), but it wouldn't be surprising if the carries are split in a similar fashion, with McFadden taking on more responsibility later in the season. The Raiders will have some flexibility with their ground attack, so they can take their time grooming McFadden to be the main man. That might mean Fargas gets 15-20 carries early on before sliding back to the 7-10 range as the season goes on, with McFadden starting out in the 10-15 range and slowly increasing, obviously depending on the matchups and game situations.
However, there is a wild card in this situation in the form of Michael Bush, a fourth-round pick in 2007 who missed all of last season recovering from a broken leg suffered during his senior season at Louisville in 2006. Bush, listed at 6-1 and 245 pounds, might be the Raiders' best option in short-yardage and goal-line situations given his size. With Fargas scoring only four touchdowns during his breakout 2007 (although three in his final four games), he might not be the most reliable guy at the goal line, and it remains to be seen if McFadden can be that guy. The Raiders are giving Bush a lot of looks this preseason, he's had 22 carries for 86 yards and a TD in their first two games, so like McFadden, Bush seems to be doing enough to get a role somewhere in the running back rotation.
Bush's presence might suppress both McFadden's and Fargas' fantasy values if he vultures his share of goal-line carries and keeps them from reaching the end zone on a regular basis. And he'd be a great player to have in TD-only leagues if the Raiders indeed use him as their goal-line back.
The Raiders should keep on riding that running game, so 500 carries wouldn't be out of the question. Our current projections have McFadden at 210 carries, Fargas with 168, Bush with 54, and (if we stick with the 500 carries) 68 spread among everyone else. That sounds about right, and as we've seen before, running backs can be very productive with those amount of carries.
James Quintong is an editor for ESPN Fantasy.