Darren McFadden took a pitchout and, with a burst of speed, accelerated into the secondary. It was just a practice in shorts with no tackling allowed, but that little spurt showed why the Raiders were right to spend their first-round pick — fourth overall in the draft — on McFadden.
There were skeptics because the Raiders had bigger needs on their offensive and defensive lines, and they had good running backs. The operative word there is good. McFadden has the chance to be great. There is fast and then there is McFadden fast. He can take your breath away with the whoosh when he gets the ball.
Rhodes and Jordan are expendable because the Raiders will also have Michael Bush this season. Bush, then at Louisville, was on the short list for the Heisman Trophy in 2006 before he broke his leg in the first game. He was picked by the Raiders in the fourth round of the 2007 draft, but basically spent the season on the injured list.
Bush has the potential to be an outstanding NFL back, but McFadden has already reached his potential. Running back is probably the easiest position to evaluate, because there is relatively little to learn. Adrian Peterson had a great rookie year with the Minnesota Vikings and you can expect McFadden to have a comparable year.
The only previous question about McFadden was his ability to catch passes because the Arkansas system did not include many to running backs. McFadden insisted he had good hands and proved it at the scouting combine, where coaches took turns throwing the ball to him.
The Raiders are throwing the ball to him in these practices, whether short swing passes or throws down the field.
“I feel comfortable with that,” he said after a recent practice. “I’ve played a lot of different positions, so I feel I can do just about anything.”
He won’t be the first good pass-catching back coming out of a predominantly running offense in college. Roger Craig made the same transition for the 49ers out of Nebraska in the ’80s. Even further back, the Raiders used backs Clem Daniels and Hewritt Dixon on deep patterns in the ’60s and turned Billy Cannon, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back in college, into a tight end.
McFadden will also take pressure off quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who must remain a question mark until he proves himself on the field.
Last year, Russell had little chance to do that because of an extended holdout. He was badly out of shape when he joined the Raiders and had serious catchup problems. He is in much better condition now — reports that he had ballooned to 300 pounds were erroneous, though at something approaching 270 on a 6-foot-6 frame, nobody would call him skinny — and he’s working hard to learn the playbook.
He still hasn’t learned to ease up on his short throws, which makes it hard for receivers to handle, and it’s still uncertain whether he’ll learn that.
What is certain, though, is that he’ll have a powerful weapon in McFadden — and that Raiders fans are really going to enjoy seeing the rookie with the ball in his hands.