Fantasy owners love handcuffs. We know that near the final rounds of fantasy drafts there are several backup running backs that go off the board. Some fantasy owners are looking for insurance if they selected an elite back in the top two rounds. Some fantasy owners are looking to rock block an opponent by stealing away a backup for a key player on another team. And some fantasy owners are just looking for a lottery ticket to scratch.
There are some backup situations which are clear cut in 2013. If you have Vikings running back Adrian Peterson then everyone knows you need backup Toby Gerhart. If you have Texans running back Arian Foster then grab Ben Tate as his handcuff. If you have Eagles running back LeSean McCoy then add Bryce Brown later in your draft. If you have Ravens running back Ray Rice then adding Bernard Pierce is a wise move.
However, there are some situations which aren't so clear. In this series "Who's The Handcuff?" I'll examine these situations and determine which one (if any) of these backup RBs should be handcuffed to the starter. Next up: Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden.
It was another season of disappointment for Darren McFadden in 2012. Once again McFadden saw his season cut short due to injury. This time it was a problematic high ankle sprain that caused him to miss four games. Recent reports say last year's disappointing season got McFadden's 'blood boiling' and he's excited to run in new offensie coordinator Greg Olsen's power blocking scheme. The team is moving away from the zone blocking scheme that netted McFadden a pathetic 3.2 YPC in 2012. Instead of moving laterally and looking for cutback lanes we'll see McFadden be used as a straight ahead runner with gaps in front of him. This allows him to get to top speed in a hurry and get to the second level quickly. The team should also continue to use him plenty as a receiver out of the backfield. He's one of the more versatile backs in the league and has averaged 3.4 receptions per game since 2010. That would translate to 54 receptions in a 16-game season. McFadden is in a contract year in 2013 as he enters the final year of his rookie contract. He says the team has not yet approached him about an extension. We've seen plenty of other players put it together when the dollars are on the line, but durability is still the biggest concern for McFadden's fantasy owners. McFadden has never played a full 16-game season -- 13 games has been his max as a pro. It seems like McFadden will always be a what if? type of back. He's incredibly talented but oft-injured and playing alongside a poor group of offensive talent. Oakland also is playing from behind a lot and averaged the fifth-fewest rushing attempts per game last season. We'll see if head coach Dennis Allen can get more from McFadden and the ground game in 2013.
This offseason the Raiders added Rashad Jennings in free agency. The former Jaguars back used to be one of the most intriguing backups in the league. That was until last season when he finally got to show what he could do as a starter after Maurice Jones-Drew went down in week seven. Jennings was simply awful and only averaged 42 yards rushing in his six starts. He was eventually benched and then was lost for the year with shoulder and concussion problems.
Jennings is listed at 6'1" 231 pounds and is known as your classic between the tackles banger. The power scheme that will benefit McFadden is also a good fit for a back like Jennings. He's a momentum runner who is tough to bring down when he builds a head of steam. Jennings has proven to be a capable receiver out of the backfield and snared 26 receptions (on 34 targets) during his best season as a pro (2010).
Like McFadden, durability is the biggest concern for Jennings. He missed the entire 2011 season due to a knee injury and hasn't looked the same since then. He only averaged 2.8 YPC last season and lacks the explosion he had when coming out of Liberty in 2009. In a conference call with the Raiders media after signing Jennings said he was now at full strength. "I'm 100 percent healthy. I came out of the season completely healthy and I've been healthy the whole offseason," Jennings said. "All injuries are in the past. That's a done deal. That's washed away."
I remember watching Jennings at the 2009 Senior Bowl alongside fellow Footballguy Sigmund Bloom. Jennings impressed with his size/speed combination and he looked swift running between the tackles. He wasn't an ankle breaker then and lacked creativity or elusiveness as a runner. His knee injury has robbed him of the swiftness he used to have and he's still not creative despite playing at the NFL level for four seasons.
In the 2013 NFL draft the Raiders selected Murray in the sixth-round out of the University of Central Florida. Murray burst onto the college scene as a redshirt sophomore against the Georgia Bulldogs in the 2010 AutoZone Liberty Bowl. He was named MVP of the game and scored the game winning touchdown after rushing 18 times for 104 yards on the day. As a senior Murray lead the Knights in rushing with 1,106 yards, including a long run of 83 yards. Murray showed off his nose for the end zone by compiling 15 rushing touchdowns in 2012. He also flashed versatility with 27 receptions and four receiving touchdowns. His per game average of 100.5 yards rushing led all of Conference USA. He accomplished all this while missing three games with an injury.
Murray is a huge runner, listed at 6'3" 230 pounds, but has speed to burn. He wasn't invited to the 2013 Scouting Combine but ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at UCF's pro day (1.48 10-yard split). Needless to say Murray can get up to top speed in a hurry and when he does he's a load to bring down. He's big enough to run over Linebackers and Cornerbacks must go low and wrap up if they want to bring Murray down. He's got the speed to get to the corner and will smartly turn his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage to get north and south as quickly as possible. Murray also has excellent ball control. He did not lose a fumble in his final 407 carries of his career. Murray's lone fumble lost was against Memphis in 2008. In addition to his nose for the end zone Murray also showed well in short yardage situations. When facing a third-down with three yards or less to go Murray averaged a whopping 6.25 YPC.
He is not overly creative or elusive as a runner. What you see is what you get with Murray. He's a big, physical back with outstanding straight line speed. Durability is a concern after his missed season (2009) because of knee surgery. Murray also failed to play big against better competition in 2012. Against non-winning programs Murray average 17 rushing attempts for 119.8 yards per game. However, against winning programs Murray averaged 16 rushing attempts for only 64.5 yards per game. The numbers also suggest that Murray wears down as the game goes on. In the first half of games in 2012 Murray averaged a hefty 6.6 YPC. In the second half of games in 2012 Murray averaged a rather average 4.2 YPC.
I watched Murray (along with Bloom once again) during the week of practice for the 2013 Texas versus The Nation Game. Murray immediately stood out because of his size and backed up his film with amazing straight line speed. He reminded me of former Titans (and Colorado) RB Chris Brown because of his upright style and speed. Murray loses a lot of momentum when he has to change direction and seems to prefer just running over defenders as opposed to juking around them. After impressing during OTAs Murray had to miss all of the Raiders' minicamp with an unspecified foot problem. The coaching staff is likely being careful with the rookie here and expects him to be ready for the start of training camp.
I've seen enough with Jennings to know that his best days are behind him and I am more intrigued by the upside of Murray in this situation. Fantasy owners agree with me as Murray's current ADP is RB64 (13.11) in 12-team PPR leagues. Jennings is going undrafted in these leagues. However, there is a player in that backfield I haven't mentioned in this article that is going off the board before Murray.
Fullback Marcel Reece is going to be involved as a runner and receiver out of the backfield if (when) McFadden goes down (again) with an injury. He caught 52 passes last season for 496 receiving yards and one touchdown. He amassed 456 total yards of offense in the four games that McFadden missed in 2012, but Reece didn't score any touchdowns during that time. Reece has a current ADP of RB54 (11.10) in 12 team PPR leagues.
Bottom line is this: Murray is a good pick near the last round of your draft if you want to roll the dice. It's almost a given that McFadden will miss some time in 2013 (don't they make deer antler spray for that?). We'll almost certainly see a RBBC featuring Murray and Reece if that happens. Fantasy owners should not expect Murray to break any ankles if given a starter's workload but he could perform well enough to be worth starting as a what-the-heck-flex while McFadden is out.