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First Down: No playin’, Felix Jones could lead your team to title

At almost this exact point in the fantasy season a year ago, former first-round pick Darren McFadden(notes) was again flirting with futility. The injury-ridden rusher, sidelined by a balky hamstring, watched helplessly from the sidelines during a preseason game versus Chicago as Michael Bush(notes) attempted to stake claim to his carries.

While on the mend, a raging fire burned inside McFadden. He was determined, once healthy, to seize control of the workload securing his rightful place as the Raiders' lead back while serving doubters a heaping plate of crow.

Little did people know, Run DMC was about to make everyone look like a bunch of Sucker M.C.s.

When Bush was felled by a fractured thumb at the end of the preseason, the door of opportunity flung open for McFadden. Suffice it to say, the passed over back grabbed the bull by the horns, displaying a devastating blend of versatility, speed and newfound power en route to a 150-total yard, 1-TD performance Week 1 at Tennessee.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Though his tender hammy cost him three games later in the regular season, McFadden did indeed silence his critics. Over 13 games, he snagged 47 passes, totaled 1,667 yards and splashed pay-dirt 10 times, all career bests. His subsequent 17.4 fantasy points per game output in standard formats ranked second only to Arian Foster(notes) among RBs. Based on his dirt cheap 115.4 ADP, the five masochists who truly believed in him turned a mammoth profit.

Juxtapose McFadden's career evolution over Felix Jones'(notes) and the similarities are downright eerie.

Both shared the spotlight at Arkansas. Both were highly touted first-round picks in 2008. Both, bitten often by the injury imp, earned brittle NFL reputations. Both, as a result, received rather unflattering nicknames in the fantasy community — McFake and Felix The Pussy(cat). And now, both are about to become elite fantasy backs.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, all promise outruns performance. However, Jones', like McFadden's before him, is about to catch up.

For Cowboys fans who've watched Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Ray Rice(notes), Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles(notes) — all studs Jerry Jones dodged in the '08 draft to acquire Felix — take their games to the next level, the fourth-year rusher's rise to prominence is long overdue. Fantasy owners seduced repeatedly by the perennial wiener tease can certainly empathize.

However, steal the rising Dallas star in the middle rounds this year, and you just might lock lips with a championship bobblehead.

Here are six reasons why Jones will be the biggest profit-turner in fantasy leagues this year:

Mean streak. Jones, once an amendable lapdog who willingly played second fiddle to a less talented Marion Barber(notes), now wears a spiked collar. The quiet back has completely changed his demeanor. No longer content hanging back in the shadows, he's implored the coaching staff to give him the ball. It appears, finally, he's ready to lead. Tony Romo agrees:

"I've never seen him more explosive or quicker than he has been in this camp," Romo said. "He also has taken it up a notch with his understanding of the game."

Jones' attitude adjustment has also transferred to his running style. Two years ago he ranked third alongside bruiser Michael Turner(notes) in yards after contact per attempt. Last year, hoping to drag more tacklers over the long haul, he packed on 10 pounds of muscle. Naturally, one would think the added bulk would have boosted his break-tackle numbers, but the opposite occurred. Not nearly as agile and elusive, he saw a dramatic dip in YAC per attempt (3.3 to 2.7).

Now back to his '09 playing weight, he's faster, nimbler and surprisingly more powerful. Sunday night against the Chargers his renewed vigor was clearly on display. On just seven carries he rushed for 58 yards, punctuated by a jaw-dropping 22-yard burst that finished with Jones throwing safety Eric Weddle(notes) to the turf like a rag doll (Watch the run here).

It's evident, a fire brews in Jones' eyes. In this new season, he's a completely different player.

Well-roundedness. Overlooked by many, Felix is one of the league's most versatile rushers. When given breathing room he's extremely explosive and difficult to bring down.

Because of Jones' tacky hands, Jason Garrett will continue to feed him in space. Last year, he hauled in 52 passes averaging 11.9 yards after catch per reception, the best mark among qualifying RBs. Excellent on third downs and much improved in pass protection, he should easily exceed 50 catches again this year, enhancing his overall worth in PPR leagues.

Tony Romo(notes). Satisfactory quarterback play is essential for any RB's success. If a passer routinely overthrows Paul Bunyan, defenses will stack the box, a scene Marshawn Lynch(notes) will soon become all too familiar with.

Jones, however, doesn't have to worry.

Love him or hate him one truth is certain about Romo, he's a competent passer capable of stretching the opposition, especially with Miles Austin(notes), Dez Bryant(notes) and Jason Witten(notes) as targets.  Keep in mind Jones averaged a spectacular 5.8 yards per carry over the final three games of 2010 with Jon Kitna(notes) at QB. Assuming Rambo doesn't run out of ammo, Jones will rank near the top of the league in yards per carry.

Boss Hogs. Last season, the Dallas offensive line was so old many of its members once blocked for Sammy Baugh.

Overhauling the unit this past "offseason," the 'Boys opted to go younger, much younger, cutting lose thirty-somethings Leonard Davis(notes) and Marc Colombo(notes) while robbing the cradle for rookies Bill Nady and Tyron Smith(notes), who at age 20 is the youngest player in the league. Usually revamped O-lines take time to congeal, but the Stars up front have aligned quickly, creating wide holes for Jones this preseason. From DallasCowboys.com:

"The guys are definitely putting up a wall, and giving me lanes to run through," Jones said. "They are creating all the runs for me, and I am just taking advantage of it."

If the O-line stays intact, Felix will wreak havoc.

Minimal competition. Tashard Choice(notes), a possible cut casualty, has missed most of training camp with a strained calf. Injury-prone rookie DeMarco Murray(notes) has also missed extensive action due to a hamstring setback. Currently, green runners Lonyae Miller(notes) and Phillip Tanner(notes) are Jones' only healthy threats. Murray could pick up the offense quickly, but it's undeniable No. 28 is poised for a hefty workload.

Schedule. As previously stated, turnover on defense often happens abruptly in the NFL. But not always. Stout run defenses from the prior season often carry over into the next. The same goes for weak units. For those that buy into this line of thinking, Jones' strength of schedule is the cherry on top of the sundae. According to FFToolbox, Big D backs have the 11th-easiest slate in fantasy. Playoff matchups against the Giants and Eagles Weeks 14 and 16, respectively, are intimidating, but the docket overall is very favorable.

Bottom Line: If there's one back capable of making a Foster-like leap this season, it very well could be Jones. At his ridiculously cheap 95.6 Y! ADP, he is the ultimate mid-round buy. Grab him, and your dreams of smooching a cheap, plastic figurine may be realized, provided, of course, he avoids injury.

Fearless Forecast (14 games): 259 carries, 1,194 rushing yards, 56 receptions, 509 receiving yards, 8 total touchdowns

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Images courtesy of US Presswire

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