August 09, 2011
Often times in the NFL, the elder statesman standing on the sidelines barking orders through a headset transforms objects on the field, helping a player reach his full potential.
Oakland offensive coordinator Al Saunders is one such magic man.
Average fantasy players are probably unfamiliar with the coach's name, but they are undoubtedly aware of what his students have accomplished. Here's a brief synopsis:
• From 2001-2005, Saunders was the mastermind behind the unstoppable Chiefs rushing attack spearheaded at first by Priest Holmes and later Larry Johnson(notes). During that unforgettable stretch, the two-man wrecking crew assaulted the fantasy competition with a barrage of spectacular, 20-plus point efforts, finishing in the top-three in points per game every year.
• At the end of '05, Saunders was hired by fellow Air Coryell alum Joe Gibbs(notes) to revamp the Washington offense. Over the next two seasons, his desecration of defensive lines continued as Clinton Portis(notes) rolled his way to consecutive top-10 RB seasons.
• Fired in 2007 by Dan Snyder, Saunders joined the Rams the following year, propelling Steven Jackson to the third-best per game average among backs that season (15.9).
• All told, this century rushers under Saunders' watch have finished first (thrice), second (twice), third (once), seventh (once) and 10th (once) in per game average at their position — Cha-ching!
Though Saunders has been openly criticized for his complex, Moby Dick-long playbook, wherever he goes backfield studs are birthed. It's hard to dispute. Inheriting an already well-greased rushing attack in Oakland, he should have no problem at least maintaing the status quo left by Tom Cable.
Despite finishing second to Arian Foster(notes) in per game average last year (17.4), many owners wouldn't describe Run DMC as "ill." In early drafts he's commonly slipped into the mid-second round, taken behind such porcelain figurines as Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Michael Turner(notes) and Frank Gore(notes).
Speaking as a McFadden lover-turned-hater-turned-lover again, it's foolish not to believe he won't at least flirt with the RB top-five. In fact, by year's end, it wouldn't be a shock if he finished in the position's catbird seat.
Over his first two seasons, the former first-round pick was hampered by lower body injuries, setbacks that extinguished his explosiveness, turning him into a timid pussyfooter. His subsequent 6.7 points per game output tarnished his reputation, earning him the undesirable "McFake" nickname.
However last year under Hue Jackson's direction, McFadden buried his wimpy alter-ego racking eight 100-total yard efforts in 13 games. He also led the league in runs of 20-plus yards with 14. More importantly, he abandoned his Reggie Bush(notes)-like tap-dancing style, displaying previously unseen power and decisiveness. His broken tackle rate ranked fifth among rushers with at least 100 runs. Little D finally grew up. According to Jackson, 2010 was just the opening act. From the Sacramento Bee:
"People laugh at me when I say this, and I'm going to say this now and I mean it with my whole heart," Jackson said. " Darren McFadden is to me one of the most complete and elite runners in this league. Obviously, he had a very good season last year. He's going to build on that, and I see a young man who is ahead of the curve of where he was last year, seeing his reads, sticking the ball in the right spots, accelerating, knowing when to decelerate."
Blazing fast, versatile and ultra-confident, McFadden might be the greatest bargain in the early rounds this year (16.1 Y! ADP, $31.4 AAV). His potential running behind an above average offensive line and within Saunders' system is limitless. Yes, his fragility is a concern and Michael Bush(notes) will likely steal away roughly 8-12 carries per game, but, make no mistake, he is a running back on the precipice of a career year. And don't worry about his fractured orbital bone. He'll be fine for Week 1.
Pass him up in the back-half of Round 1, especially in PPR formats, and a group of "kindhearted," "well-equipped" Raider fans might just randomly ring your doorbell.
Fearless Forecast (15 games): 262 carries, 1,312 rushing yards, 62 receptions, 651 receiving yards, 13 total touchdowns
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