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Contract Year Player to Watch: Darren McFadden

Darren McFadden has never started more than 13 games in a season. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)Darren McFadden has never started more than 13 games in a season. (Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

As we power through the summer toward training camps, Chris Burke will highlight players that interest him this season for various reasons. This week, he’s looking at three players who could hit free agency in 2014.

Which player would you rather have?

One has not missed a game over the past three seasons and, over that span, has rushed for 2,764 yards and 30 touchdowns. The other has 2,478 yards and 13 scores on the ground since 2010, while missing an average of 5.3 games per season.

You'd want choice No. 1, right? The more durable back with a bit of a nose for the end zone?

What if I told you that player No. 2 is Darren McFadden, though? Would that change your mind?

Player one there is BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who went undrafted in 2008 and then struggled to find playing time in New England before finally breaking through in 2010. He topped 1,000 yards rushing that season, then did it again for the Bengals last year.

McFadden is the latter candidate. The No. 4 overall pick in that same '08 draft that saw Green-Ellis slide through all seven rounds, McFadden entered the league with all sorts of hype -- hype on which he has mostly failed to deliver.

He may be down to his last shot in Oakland. McFadden is entering the final year of the six-year, $60 million contract he signed after being drafted, and the Raiders would prefer to find out if he's capable of performing as an elite NFL back before handing him more money.

The glimpses have been there. Mainly in 2010, when McFadden started a career-high 13 games en route to 1,157 yards rushing (his only season over 1,000 yards), 47 receptions and 10 total touchdowns. More importantly, the Raiders finished that season 8-8, their first season at the .500 mark since posting an 11-5 mark in 2002.

Oakland also finished 8-8 the next season, losing the AFC West title on the season's final week. The Raiders accomplished that despite getting just seven games and 614 yards rushing from the oft-injured McFadden.

So now, GM Reggie McKenzie must decide if his highest-paid player is worth further commitment.

The frustrating thing, the thing that has driven the Raiders mad since using a top-five pick on McFadden in 2008, is that McFadden is without question one of the league's more talented players. He can catch passes out of the backfield, break off long runs and force defenses to pay extra attention to him when he's on the field.

In the Sports Illustrated fantasy football mock draft (on newsstands now in our "Fantasy Football 2013" guide), Ben Reiter nabbed McFadden for his team, then declared him a "top five" player at his position.

But when will all the obvious potential be on display for a full season?

If it is this season, there should be nothing between McFadden and career numbers across the board. The Raiders have a better offensive line than people may realize, anchored by hulking left tackle Jared Veldheer. They're also bailing on the zone-blocking scheme that McFadden so loathed last season in favor of a more traditional look.

McFadden was understandably thrilled at that decision: "This is very exciting for me. I am the type of guy who likes to go downhill, make a cut and go; that’s my thing. We’ll mix it up like we used to, and get some zones in there, but for the most part, I will be keeping my shoulders toward the line of scrimmage."

Reports out of Oakland's early offseason workouts were that McFadden was "energized, explosive" and -- this is key -- healthy.

The Raiders have some serviceable depth behind McFadden in ex-Jaguar Rashad Jennings and sixth-round pick Latavius Murray. Neither can even come close to being the type of threat McFadden is when he's at full steam. As Oakland tries to solve its QB conundrum (with Matt Flynn probably starting the year under center), it would love to rely on McFadden to carry the load.

And this is why McFadden is in the spotlight here, as we take a look at players entering contract years. The "contract year" has a magical way of healing all wounds, of helping players elevate their performances.

For McFadden, the possible reward is massive. Next year's potential free-agent RB class is an underwhelming one, even more so if Maurice Jones-Drew re-ups with the Jaguars. With a performance like many believe he's capable of providing, McFadden might be the obvious top back -- should Oakland let him walk -- with a second-tier of players like Ahmad Bradshaw, Jonathan Dwyer, Toby Gerhart and Andre Brown possibly behind him.

McFadden was the most coveted back headed into the 2008 draft. He wound up being selected nine spots ahead of Jonathan Stewart, 19 before Rashard Mendenhall and 20 earlier than Chris Johnson. The Raiders felt then that they had landed their franchise back, a star for years to come.

On paper, McFadden remains in the upper-echelon of NFL running backs, far ahead of a steady grinder like Green-Ellis. At some point, however, potential becomes wasted. McFadden is rapidly approaching that cutoff point. Can he finally be the back everyone expects?

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