Can Darren McFadden Resurrect NFL Career in 2014?

Christopher HansenNFL AnalystMarch 4, 2014

Getty Images

Once upon a time (back in 2010), Darren McFadden rushed for 1,157 yards and added another 507 receiving in just 13 games. Unfortunately, McFadden has neither been able to match that production nor stay healthy for 13 games in a single season since then while playing for the Oakland Raiders.

McFadden will be hoping to resurrect his career in 2014, but he’s unlikely to turn things around sufficiently to ever be considered the type of player he was a few years ago.

After six seasons of being widely considered the most talented player on offense for the Raiders, there remains only a small chance that McFadden will return to the team that drafted him in the first round of the 2008 draft. McFadden would have to take a deal commensurate with his production, which would require him to swallow a heavy dose of pride.


Injury Prone

One of the things working against McFadden is his inability to stay healthy. McFadden is averaging just 11 games played per season in his career. When he does play, it's often with a nagging injury that slows him down.

If the speedy running back is going to turn his career around, staying healthy is obviously going to be a key factor. McFadden has proved in flashes to be a very capable player when healthy, but how healthy he is always seems to be the question.

The question regarding McFadden is whether that his drop in performance is due to the fact he never regained the burst he had prior to suffering a foot sprain in 2011, or it's because other injuries have limited him since then. The latter would give McFadden a chance to recapture his top production if he can get healthy, but it’s impossible to know just how much injuries have played a role in his production decline when he has been on the field.  

McFadden takes a lot of big hits due to his physical running style, but that hasn't been the cause of most of his injuries.
McFadden takes a lot of big hits due to his physical running style, but that hasn't been the cause of most of his injuries.Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The Raiders and the fans blamed the zone-blocking scheme for McFadden’s lack of production in 2012, but the team changed the scheme back to a friendlier one for the Arkansas product without any results. In fact, backup running back Rashad Jennings shined in the starting role while McFadden was out of the lineup last season.

There remains a small chance that McFadden could resurrect his career if he can stay healthy, but the odds of him doing so currently seem low. McFadden’s best chance to stay healthy is probably sharing time with another running back, but that would mean accepting a new role.

Maybe by the law of averages the running back is due to get some injury luck, but the reality of the situation by now is that he’s just prone to injury. There’s nothing that McFadden can necessarily do to prevent these injuries. He’s just built in such a way that they are difficult to avoid.   

The older McFadden gets, the more the injuries are going to take a toll on his body. If he doesn’t bounce back from a putrid 2013, he might not even be worth a roster spot on most teams.


Scheme Limitations

One of the biggest problems with McFadden is that he’s scheme limited. McFadden has played three years in a zone-blocking scheme and three years in a man-blocking scheme with a similar number of carries in both.

McFadden in the Zone-Blocking Scheme

That might be a selling point to some teams if not for the fact that McFadden has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in the zone-blocking scheme to 4.8 yards per carry in a man-blocking one. A team hoping to insert McFadden into a man-blocking scheme will also have to ignore his 3.3 yards per carry in 2013, which is a giant red flag.

Mike Goodson and fullback Marcel Reece were able to have more success in the zone scheme in 2012 than McFadden, making it two consecutive years that the backup runners were more efficient than him. It’s a troubling trend for a team looking at McFadden, and it should keep his cost down significantly on the open market.

McFadden in the Man-Blocking Scheme

At least recently, the scheme hasn’t mattered for McFadden as far as production is concerned, but it’s true that he lacks the field vision and patience to be a good running back in the zone-blocking scheme. McFadden’s struggles with the zone scheme are well documented, and he’s clearly more comfortable when he doesn’t have to move laterally.

Insert the 26-year-old into the right scheme behind the right offensive line, and he might turn things around, but given that set of criteria, there is no shortage of running backs who would do the same. Essentially, McFadden will need help from the offensive coordinator and offensive line if he’s to resurrect his career in 2014.


Blocking Concerns

For McFadden to resurrect his career, he might have to become a quality third-down back. He has always been a very capable receiver with soft hands, but to be good on third down, he’ll also need to block.

McFadden’s blocking has been suspect for the past three seasons, which limits his ability to help any offense in passing situations. NFL defenses routinely bring in extra pass-rushers on third down, so the running backs have to be able to block while also being good receivers.

YearPass-Blocking GradeSnaps in Pass Protection

Most alarming is that McFadden’s blocking skills have eroded every year for the past four years. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) confirms this with a lower grade in each of the past three seasons than the year prior.

McFadden will have to work to improve his pass protection skills if he wants to turn things around. If the running back can’t improve in this area, chances are he’s going to lose touches and with them opportunities to produce out of the backfield as a receiver.

In 2010, McFadden stayed in to pass block 157 times according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and the increased workload actually helped him. It’s a gamble but one that might be worth taking for some teams.


Age, Workload and Hope

Given his age and relatively light workload over the past six seasons, McFadden still has a chance to turn things around in 2014. McFadden will be 27 this year, so he’s still in his prime.

Although it has been due to injuries, McFadden’s overall workload has also been quite light. McFadden has surpassed 200 carries just twice in his career, and he’s averaging less than 150 per season. If McFadden can exterminate the injury bug that has zapped his production, a team could be getting a diamond in the rough.

Games Played and Workload
YearAgeGamesStartsRush AttemptsReceptions

A recent example of a player who changed teams while he was still young and turned things around was Reggie Bush.  After five disappointing years in New Orleans, in which he averaged just 12 games per season with one season over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, Bush found new life with the Miami Dolphins in 2011 and 2012.

Bush exploded in 2013 as a member of the Detroit Lions, posting a career-best 1,512 yards from scrimmage. The difference over the past three years is striking when compared to his first five seasons, but lost in the turnaround is the fact that Bush has been able to stay healthy.

The range of outcomes for McFadden is wide. With another season like 2013, McFadden might find himself out of the league, but he’s young enough and talented enough to be a productive starter given the right set of conditions.