“Congratulations, Darren McFadden! You were the 4th-leading rusher in the NFL in 2015. Now you've lost your starting job and may not even be a Cowboy in 2016! Thanks for playing!”
The NFL can be cruel, and perhaps no player on the 2016 Dallas Cowboys will feel that more than running back Darren McFadden. One of the few bright spots of the dreadful 2015 season, McFadden's future now sits somewhere between the bench and the street.
Ezekiel Elliott, drafted fourth overall in April, is the Cowboys' new starter at running back. Before they knew that they'd be adding Elliott, Dallas signed veteran free agent Alfred Morris to a two-year deal. They also re-signed Lance Dunbar and drafted another back, Darius Jackson, in the sixth round.
Still, Darren McFadden's coming off a season with roughly 1,400 total yards of offense. This is especially impressive considering he didn't become the full-time starter until Week 6. Could Dallas find a trade partner for McFadden given his 2015 performance?
The biggest hurdle Dallas will face in trading McFadden is the reputation of their offensive line. Everyone saw DeMarco Murray's 2014 explosion, and then his utter collapse last year in Philadelphia. Nobody wants to be compared to Chip Kelly for front office decision-making, meaning they may shy away of any player whose value has been inflated by the Cowboys' offensive line.
Darren McFadden's production was inflated by playing behind Dallas' line.
Running backs don't have renaissance seasons at age 28 without help. Even without the threat of the pass, due to Tony Romo's injury, McFadden was able to average 4.6 yards-per-carry. That won't happen on a team that doesn't have four first-round talents blocking for him.
On the other hand, McFadden's contract hasn't been inflated by his performance. His base salary of $1.25 million is all that his new team would be responsible for. That's bargain money even for a veteran backup, let alone a guy who can put up big numbers under the right circumstances.
Dallas may not want to lose Darren McFadden at all, of course. His value to them is going to be greater than any other team based on the aforementioned variables. If something did happen to Zeke Elliott, Dallas would love to be able to turn back to McFadden for help.
However, if everyone's healthy and Darius Jackson earns their trust during training camp and preseason, McFadden is likely to be the odd man out. Dallas gets back $2 million on the salary cap if they release him. With Elliott almost certain to get workhorse carries this year, Dallas won't have reason for keeping four running backs. That doesn't even factor in Dunbar, who's more of a receiver and specialty player.
There are other red flags working against Darren McFadden. He turns 29 this August, which is like 35 in running back years. Although McFadden hasn't missed a game in the last two seasons, he's had a bad history with injuries. Even right now he's dealing with an elbow fracture suffered away from football.
He is projected to be back by the end of training camp.
The preseason may give Dallas its best chance to find a trade partner. The Miami Dolphins — Dallas' Week 3 preseason opponent — have a tumultuous situation at running back after losing Lamar Miller in free agency. Dallas could try to utilize Darren McFadden in that game, especially with the starters playing big minutes in the “dress rehearsal,” to whet the Dolphins' appetite.
The Dolphins have a strong offensive line and may feel that McFadden could produce for them. Even if they would only offer something like a fourth or fifth-round pick, that's a great return for Dallas on a player that they could end up releasing.
Of course, any other NFL team might see the writing on the wall and just wait for Dallas to cut McFadden. However, at that point you're dealing with the guy on the open market and not getting to trade for his bargain contract. It could be worth a draft pick just to avoid that conversation.
In all likelihood, Darren McFadden will either remain in Dallas as a depth option or be released. Trades don't happen as often in the NFL and usually they involve big-name players. McFadden used to be one of those but now he's damaged goods from a league-wide perspective.
It's a tough reality, but that's professional football.