First Down: McFabulous days ahead for McFadden, sliding Gronk and football’s Neo Gio

Owners who invested an exorbitant pick in china doll Darren McFadden last year are still sorely regretting it. Chucking hard inflatable balls at his dome, Mike Rice-style, would be an acceptable form of cathartic release.

When not sidelined for the 10 millionth time with a lower body ailment (last year a high-ankle sprain), the disappointing rusher appeared overly timid, lacked explosiveness and was generally terrible, an ill-fit for Greg Knapp’s zone-blocking scheme. Shockingly 82 of his 216 rushing attempts (37.9 percent) went for one, zero or negative yards. His overall yards per carry average (3.3) was the lowest of his career, by a wide margin. According to Pro Football Focus‘ RB metrics, he was the worst back in the league registering a -19.2 rating, nearly ten ticks below next lowest Chris Johnson.


Fantasy-wise McFadden was equally deplorable. His laughable 9.5 points per game average wasn’t even starter worthy in 12-team leagues (No. 29 among RBs). His 42 catches proved he was still effective in the pass game, but he likely burned millions for the final time. In the eyes of most, he will wear a scarlet letter this draft season. Run DM-flee.

However, despite his sorrowful 2012 and oft-injured reputation, McFadden is a discounted RB worth exploring (29.5 ADP, RB18). No, this is not a belated April Fool’s joke. Here are three reasons why owners should strongly debate his services come August:

Revamped Scheme. Under the direction of newly installed offensive coordinator Greg Olson and finely mustachioed O-line coach Tony Sparano, the Raiders are scrapping last year’s zone-blocking system, reverting to a similar power gap set they followed two seasons ago. It's a move that has given the rusher renewed optimism. As the now 100-percent McFadden recently told the San Francisco Chronicle, he’s "the type of guy who likes to go downhill, make a cut and go; that’s my thing.” Keeping his eyes and shoulders “toward the line of scrimmage” are critical to his success. Last year’s format, predicated on lateral movement and cut-backs against the grain simply didn’t fit his style. This year will be a different story.

Recall McFadden racked his finest numbers three years ago in a power system. That year over 13 games, DMC bulled his way to 1,664 total yards (5.2 ypc) and 10 touchdowns. His subsequent 17.3 fantasy points per game ranked top-five. An output in range of that this year isn’t farfetched.

Newly acquired passer Matt Flynn or possibly first-round pick Geno Smith will need to be at least semi-competent, but with a decent offensive line in place, he should pay immediate dividends in such a scheme.

Money Motivation. The contract year phenomenon is usually more impactful in the NBA and MLB, but occasionally it elevates performance levels in The League.

McFadden could soon prove the theory.

He turns 26 one week before the start of the regular season. That may seem young, but in running back years he’s middle-aged. This is likely his final opportunity to score mucho dinero. And that could be a reach in this timeshare age of the NFL. Still, the hopes for a sizable payday will provide the necessary psychological fuel for him to succeed.

Skill Set. It’s hard to dispute McFadden’s capabilities from a pure talent perspective. When not in a full body cast, he’s arguably one of the most versatile weapons in the league. He’s explosive around the edge, an indispensable cog in the pass game and elusive in space. During his breakout campaign in 2010 he forced 30 missed tackles, the 11th-highest mark among RBs.

Yes, Ryan Mathews' twin is the poster-boy of underachievement. Various physical setbacks have certainly stunted his value growth. Not once during his five-year career has he played more than 13 games in a season. His upright running style, which leaves him vulnerable to lower-body displacement, has been and will continue to be a worry. As a result, many owners would rather undergo a colonoscopy than invest in his services. Still, because he’ll likely fall to the third or fourth round of most 12-team drafts, he’s worth the moderate risk, though sage buyers should nab Marcel Reece in the later rounds. If the Raiders offense can meld quickly, the former first-round pick could indeed regain top-five status. Roughly 1,500 total yards with 9-11 TDs isn’t an outlandish projection even if he plays 12-13 games.

Swallow your pride. Muscle up the courage. And buy on the bear. McFadden could turn a hefty profit this fall.

• The NFL draft may be two weeks away and multi-sport fantasy players currently have bigger fish to fry (Pull your head our of your keyster David Price!), but you should get familiar with North Carolina RB product Giovani Bernard. According to Bengals beat man Joe Reedy, Cincy is entertaining grabbing him with one of two second-round picks.

For those unaware of what Bernard brings to the table, prepare to be wowed. He's a well-built rusher who's explosive around the edge, gritty between the tackles, contributes soundly on special teams and is sensational in the pass game. The youngster could use some seasoning as a pass-blocker and his injury-laden past is a concern (ACL in 2010), but it's hard not to salivate while watching his highlight reel. Scouts have compared him to DeAngelo Williams and, get this, Ray Rice. That's impressive company.

Speaking in hypotheticals, if Bernard does indeed land in the 513, he would be a viable RB2/3 in 12-teamers. BenJarvus Green-Ellis is an excellent short-yardage back who will continue to dominate red-zone carries, but he lacks big play ability. Bernard, who would be featured between the 20s, is a poor man's C.J. Spiller in many ways. Approximately 225-230 total touches, 1100 total yards and 5-7 TDs wouldn't be a stretch. The Bengals need to improve in the run-blocking department, but with defenses so focused on containing A.J. Green, Bernard could excel as an underneath/change-of-pace weapon.

This year's RB class is deep. Several upstarts, particularly Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin, Joseph Randle and Le'Veon Bell could leave an indelible mark. But Bernard, in the right situation, could be the cream of the crop, especially for the PPR masses. Track his progress closely on draft day.

Rob Gronkowski's recovery from a multiple forearm injuries continues to be the antithesis of smooth. ESPN Boston reported late Sunday the tight end could undergo a fourth procedure on his fractured left arm. In a description not for the squeamish, "discharge" stemming from an infection is the reason for additional surgery, though his agent disputed Monday that he may not have to go under the knife. Regardless of who to believe, Gronk's status for training camp remains cloudy. Most worrisome, because he's broken the arm twice, he's extremely susceptible to snapping it again even when it does heal. Think Ryan Mathews' collarbone.

At this juncture, Gronk is completely avoidable in drafts, especially if his top-20 price tag holds (18.1 ADP). Keep in mind tight end is extraordinarily deep this year. Fred Davis (155.7 ADP), Brandon Myers (148.9) and Martellus Bennett (149.6) are in line to be late-round steals.

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