Darren McFadden: All He's Cracked Up to Be?

will schmidleyAnalyst IMarch 3, 2008

Folks, we're less than two months away from draft day. In the wake of the combine, it's safe to say that the long-held perception of this year's draft class as "weak" has been affirmed.

Between marked deficiencies at certain key positions, and a myriad of questions, both medical- and character-related, surrounding some of the draft's few "elite" talents, this year's draft class is far from perfect.

Needless to say, any discussion of this year's elite prospects invariably includes analysis of former Hog superstar Darren McFadden, a prospect who has been "under the microscope" in the past month, to say the least.

I've long touted "DMac" as one of the best draft prospects in recent memory, regardless of position, and I won't be rescinding that claim.

There is, however, an accumulation of opinion among some "experts" that McFadden might not be quite the prospect he previously was cracked up to be.

First, there are "character" concerns. Talk about a timely topic, given the troubles of numerous high-profile NFL players of late. McFadden has been involved in two scuffles outside and around bars over the course of his career and also has children from two different women due this summer.

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To be frank, I think the paternity issues are non-issues. They're personal matters, and they don't seem to bear any relevance as to whether McFadden is worth a lucrative contract.

The issue of late-night altercations outside of bars, though, is where things get hazy.

On the one hand, the burgeoning paranoia of NFL clubs relating to "character issues" and late night incidents is justified. Every time a player finds himself in trouble, many times it's a late-night altercation or incident, often times at or around a night club or bar.

On the other hand, evaluating the significance of such incidents is not a cut-and-dry task. It's difficult to sift through a prospect's past and determine whether said encounters indicate "character issues" or just instances of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

In my opinion, though, both of McFadden's "incidents" merit consideration in making determinations of his off-the-field makeup, but neither one seems to be serious or indicate a "character" problem.

This lack of "character" problem with McFadden is further corroborated by his humble, down-to-earth demeanor in interviews.

In my opinion, it's easy to see this guy isn't the second coming of Pacman Jones—a player whose surly, cocksure attitude that reflects his troubled past makes itself evident in just about every interview he conducts.

Anyway, enough about McFadden's character, and on to discussion of his "game."

I watched McFadden dominate the nation's toughest conference for three consecutive years. During his sophomore season, when he vaulted himself into Heisman discussion after a phenomenal November, he established himself as the nation's most respected and feared player.

He entered the 2007 season the epitome of a "marked man" and responded by collecting his second consecutive Doak Walker Award after putting up even gaudier numbers than in years past.

When one considers the context of his tremendous 2007 season—that is, the health issues he faced, the inconsistency of Arkansas' passing game, and the lengths that opposing teams went to stop him—his performance borders on the unthinkable.

Looking at McFadden, it's easy to see beyond just an impressive stat line, though. He's proven himself to be a transcendent athlete.

He hits a hole with more authority and speed than any back I've ever watched, and his ability to destroy defensive pursuit angles is unparalled in recent college football history. He's also got exceptionally light feet, which gives him a rare capacity to lose minimal momentum when he cuts.

In addition to this, the responsibility McFadden took on in the Arkansas offense and the efficiency and excellence with which he carried out his variety of roles highlights the rare breed of innate athleticism he has.

Consider, perhaps, any of the other top running back prospects (specifically Jonathan Stewart and Rashard Mendehall), trying to summon the athleticism to bear the athletic responsibility that McFadden did in Arkansas' offense.

I watched, with a great degree of admiration, McFadden's gliding, effortless athletic talents shine over the course of his career at Arkansas in the variety of roles he played.

And frankly, I'm hard pressed, in fact, unable, to see other top prospects such as Mendenhall and Stewart having the athletic versatility and natural football skills to be up to the task. In essence, position-specific skills aside, McFadden's innate athletic ability is what distinguishes him as an elite talent who is a cut above his peers-particularly the aforementioned running backs.

Despite the above facts, there still are those who doubt McFadden's status as an elite talent, most notably the fast-rising Mike Mayock of NFL Network, who boldly stated he wouldn't touch the former Hog in the Top 20. Foremost among Mayock's concerns is the fact that McFadden's admittedly rail-thin lower body is a cause for concern and that his "legs go dead on contact."

First, I'll assign credit to Mayock where it's due. "DMac" has an uncharacteristically spindly lower body that seems less than ideal for physical running in the NFL. 

However, McFadden is not the thundering force the player he's most often compared to these days. Adrian Peterson is, but I think we can all agree he's not the toppling, incompetent inside runner Mayock characterizes him as.

In fact, McFadden is one of the most impressive and physically dominating backs once he gets past the line of scrimmage and into the secondary that I've ever seen.

Mayock's analysis, in my opinion, was led astray because he did not consider McFadden's body of work carefully enough in constructing his opinion.

In his take on NFL Newtwork, it became apparent Mayock had only watched a few of McFadden's game tapes. He harped on McFadden's inside running ability on the basis of his performance in the LSU game.

Again, let me assign credit where it is due. His virtuoso performance vs. LSU was littered with the usual medley of his quick bursts and defenders diving unsuccessfully at his feet. McFadden was not a physical force with the ball that game. Indeed, it seemed as though he struggled on contact on more than a few occasions.   

Perhaps, his fumbling woes (three, early in the game) caused him to run timidly, or maybe his sore ribs still were bothering him.

Regardless, it was one game. Too often, when an exceptionally talented player enjoys success in the spotlight for too long, he is over-analyzed and subsequently underdrafted. Anyone who has watched enough "DMac" over the years knows full well he enjoys a good deal of success, especially between tackles.

Again, is he the terrorizing, violent runner Peterson is? No, not even close. However, I'm willing to bet if you told just about any player, coordinator, or coach in the SEC that McFadden was a weak physical runner, they'd probably chuckle, pat you on the back, and tell you to go back and watch some tape.

In my opinion, McFadden is best characterized by Eric Dickerson as an explosive, uncannily quick, and fast back with the ability to get physical when he needs to. Consider Dickerson's take on McFadden:

 “I like his total package—size and speed. People say guys who run upright are easier to hit, but you have to catch us first. And if you do, we’ve got enough size to give out some punishment.”

That's a pretty ringing endorsement, if you ask me. Not to mention a flawless diagnosis. 

As of now, McFadden, as a result of acquisitions by teams at the top of the draft and perhaps "character" concerns, no longer seems like a mortal lock for the top five. Right now, his firewall seems to be the Jets at the sixth pick or the Bengals at No. 9.

As you can imagine, in my opinion, McFadden should be a top-three pick, perhaps, even the first, regardless of need.

I think this because, as I outlined earlier, when one considers together his body of work, its context, and his exceptionally rare and unteachable athletic capacity, I simply cannot fathom an explanation as to why he wouldn't be the top talent in this year's draft.

To be honest, I think he's the best draft prospect of the new millenium, and I'm not bashful about saying it.

You're wrong, Mike Mayock. End of story. Now go watch some more tape. 


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