Darren McFadden spent most of his rookie season in the NFL trying to shake the lingering pains that came from his pair of turf toe injuries. The fourth overall pick in the 2008 draft, McFadden had a few notable moments but did not figure into the offense as much as or the Raiders had hoped.
Now healthy and sprinting around the field with sudden bursts of speed like he did when he was at Arkansas, McFadden expects to be a more integral part of the Raiders offense than he was last year.
"I feel like with the versatility I have, they're going to try to move me around a little bit in the offense and try to get the ball to me (more)," McFadden told SBI. "I feel 10 times more comfortable than last year, even with things like the blitz pick-up. Now I'm just out there learning the system and learning the guys."
McFadden was the Raiders' second-leading rusher behind Justin Fargas and was also second on the team in receptions behind tight end Zach Miller. Yet those numbers could have been even more impressive had McFadden not spent so much time on the sidelines.
The turf toe injuries played a significant role in McFadden's idleness but there were also times when a healthy McFadden stayed on the sidelines for long stretches.
In the offseason practices and at the team's mini-camp earlier this month, however, there was a noticeable change. While Fargas still lined up and took the majority of reps with the starting offense, McFadden found himself lining up as a wideout, in the slot and also running a lot of swing patterns out of the backfield.
On one particular play, Fargas showed his speed is still intact when he took a handoff and started slowly to his left, appearing to dip into the line before juking back to the outside, where he outraced a pair of defenders around the corner and took off down the sidelines.
"You see the explosiveness that we drafted," head coach Tom Cable said. "You see the ability to line him up in multiple spots like we're doing already, with different formations, so the expectations are very high. His runs are great. He looks more confident, more sure of himself, looks stronger from the offseason program, so I think the expectations are pretty high."
The expectations were high for McFadden a year ago but he had just one game in which had had more than 14 carries. The turf toe injuries landed McFadden on the inactive list for three straight games midway through the season but late in the year the rookie running back said he felt fine, only to get one carry against San Diego on Dec. 4 and one in the season-ending win over Tampa Bay on Dec. 28.
For a variety of reasons, Cable needs to make sure that doesn't happen again.
For starters, McFadden is easily the most explosive player on the Raiders roster. He's also the most versatile of the three running backs, though his pass blocking needs improvement.
Oakland's running game all around is also vital to the success and continued development of quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Defenses won't be able to load up on the blitz and go after Russell as aggressively as they did in 2008 if the running game is successful enough to keep opponents from stacking the line.
McFadden's receiving skills also make him a valuable asset to Russell. The pair connected several times in the mini-camp, usually on outlet throws when Russell's primary receivers downfield were covered.
"That's the big thing the coaches have been emphasizing, that if the pass is not there downfield, go ahead and check it down," McFadden said. "It's very exciting. We've had a strong defense last year; we just had to get everybody together and on the same page offensively.
"A lot of it is the same. The terminology is changed a little bit. You might have one word that means something this year that was a different word last year. So you just try not to confuse it."
Wagaman's take: One of Cable's biggest shortcomings last year was his failure to get McFadden more involved in things. During the late-season win over Houston, McFadden didn't get into the game until more than three minutes had passed by. The funny thing is, Cable spent much of last year telling reporters on a weekly basis that the team was ready to put more plays in for McFadden, but even as a rookie McFadden knew better. We're not going to hold our breath waiting to see if Cable pulls the same tricks this season but if the Raiders want to improve their offense, getting McFadden the ball 15-20 times a game seems reasonable.
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