Wednesday March 19th, 2008

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall's impending trade from the Falcons to the Raiders can only mean one thing for the Silver and Black:

Oakland will select Arkansas running back Darren McFadden with the fourth pick in next month's draft.

Of course, that's purely speculation. But a person familiar with the team's personnel meetings told me this week that he could "definitely see that happening."

One reason is the lack of a breakaway threat in the team's offensive backfield. Another is owner Al Davis' weak spot for playmakers with speed. And finally there is the financial commitment the Raiders have made on defense this offseason.

The unit slipped badly last year, falling from third overall in 2006 to 22nd in 2007. Davis took swift (if not irrational) action this offseason by giving tackle Tommy Kelly just over $18 million in guarantees, making Giants free agent Gibril Wilson the third-highest-paid safety in the game, committing a minimum of $9.45 million to cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as an exclusive "franchise" player, and he reportedly will sign Hall to a new multiyear deal that averages $10 million a year.

That's a lot of money for one side of the ball in one offseason, particularly with the team still looking to add an edge rusher to complement left end Derrick Burgess -- who, by the way, has let the club know he is seeking a raise from the $2 million he's scheduled to earn this year and next. The Raiders believe Kelly and Terdell Sands can hold down the interior of the defensive line, and with only one draft pick in the first three rounds after the trade for Hall is finalized, Davis has to ask himself whether he wants to sink more money into the defense or use the fourth overall selection on an offensive standout who could make life easier for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, the first overall pick in last year's draft.

That's where McFadden comes into play. While attending a Raiders game last season, I was told in passing by a team employee that Davis was infatuated with McFadden. For good reason. Davis always has been blinded by speed, and McFadden often leaves a vapor trail when he turns the corner.

The Raiders return their top three rushers from an offense that ranked sixth in rushing last season, averaging 130.4 yards a game, but Justin Fargas, LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes combined for only two touchdown runs of 10 or more yards and none beyond 19 yards. McFadden is a threat to go the distance each time he touches the ball. He covered the 40-yard dash at the combine in a blistering 4.33 seconds, and in his final two seasons at Arkansas he had at least nine carries of 50 or more yards, including two of 80.

Those are the kinds of numbers that put Davis' attention in a chokehold. He thrives on the big play. That's why he favors the vertical passing game and bump-and-run cornerbacks. He wants his clubs to be feared, not just respected -- neither of which has been the case the last five seasons, during which Oakland has a 19-61 record.

The Raiders still need help on the offensive line and could use another wide receiver, but Davis, who is said to be proceeding without much input from coach Lane Kiffin, likely believes he sufficiently addressed those areas with the free-agent signings of tackle Kwame Harris (who lost his starting job to a rookie last season in San Francisco) and wideout Javon Walker (who missed eight games last season in Denver after having his third knee surgery in three years).

That brings us back to McFadden. A source close to the player said McFadden is expected to meet with the Raiders in the next couple of weeks. He visited Tuesday with the Jets, who have the sixth pick, but it's possible he won't be around when New York is on the clock.

Miami, St. Louis and Atlanta select ahead of Oakland, but none of them needs a running back. The Dolphins have Ronnie Brown, whom they selected second overall a couple of years ago; the Rams have Steven Jackson, one of the game's top young backs; and the Falcons signed San Diego free agent Michael Turner to a $34.5 million deal. So the likelihood is strong that McFadden will be there when the Raiders select -- again, barring a trade by another club to jump ahead of Oakland.

Team sources contend the Raiders are high on defensive ends Chris Long of Virginia and Vernon Gholston of Ohio State, but even if they're on the board when the Raiders are up, the evidence seems to indicate that the Raiders will go with McFadden. Wisely so.

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