Now that he’s sat out the mandatory six weeks on the Non-Football Injury list, Darren McFadden is eligible to return to the Dallas Cowboys. The team is on their bye week now, meaning McFadden’s first game back could be in Week 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Unfortunately for the veteran, the Cowboys appear to be fully stocked at running back.
Ezekiel Elliott is doing what was expected when he was drafted fourth overall last April; carrying a heavy workload and putting up big numbers. He has 137 carries of the team’s 175 rushing attempts by running backs, which is 78% of the workload.
Obviously, nobody thinks McFadden should return and cut into Elliott’s carries. The rookie is leading the NFL in yardage and has an impressive 5.1 average. His productivity is already blowing away what McFadden did in 2015.
The real question is if Darren McFadden could find a role with Alfred Morris, Lance Dunbar, and Darius Jackson already on the depth chart. Personally, I don’t like his chances.
Morris hasn’t been quite as flashy as he was during the preseason, but still has a respectable 130 yards on his 33 carries. What you like about Morris is that he is better suited to the same zone blocking scheme that the Cowboys use with Elliott, giving you more consistency in the offense regardless of who’s carrying the ball.
McFadden is more of a one-cut runner. You want to make a lane and let him burst through it. He doesn’t have the same wiggle of Elliot or Morris or a style that allows for quick shifts at the line of scrimmage.
That isn’t to say McFadden can’t be effective. We all saw him put up impressive numbers last year, becoming the NFL’s fourth-best rusher despite not getting starter carries until Week 6.
The issue is more that Alfred Morris is better suited for the backup role. Not only does he give you the consistency in style of play but he is better for short-yardage and goal-line situations. If Ezekiel Elliott is gassed after you getting you down close to the endzone, Morris is a better fit to come in and finish the drive.
After Elliott and Morris, the Cowboys have runner-receiver Lance Dunbar and sixth-round rookie Darius Jackson. Could McFadden push one of these guys off the roster?
Shocking as this may to be read, Dunbar is currently out with a minor knee injury. He has missed the last two games but could be back after the bye week. When healthy, Dunbar gives the Cowboys a versatile, potentially explosive weapon and a backup kick returner.
Jackson has yet to be active in 2016 but the Cowboys clearly like him enough not to risk losing him off the practice squad. McFadden’s return doesn’t change that, so I wouldn’t expect Jackson to lose his spot to the veteran.
If Darren McFadden has a shot here, it’s that Dallas could decide they don’t have a use for Lance Dunbar anymore. We’ve seen receiver Lucky Whitehead making an impact using the kind of sweep plays that would’ve probably been drawn up for Dunbar. Meanwhile, Cole Beasley is doing damage on WR screens that Dunbar ran in 2015.
Given his unreliable health, Dunbar might be the one who has less overall value. Dallas could decide that they’d rather have McFadden in the stable, even as the third option, for security over the rest of the season.
The bottom line is that somebody has to go. My gut says that it will be Darren McFadden, and it’s only a question of when. The Cowboys have three weeks from when he returns to practice to when they have to activate or release him.
While I don’t think he has much trade value, McFadden’s future could be decided sooner thanks to the November 1st deadline. If Dallas can move him, they will have to do it shortly after their next game against the Eagles. If the Cowboys can’t see a role for McFadden going forward, getting even a sixth or seventh-round pick is better than nothing.
That said, barring a landscape-changing injury, I don’t expect to see Darren McFadden in a Cowboys uniform again. It’s certainly a sad way for things to end after the renaissance season he had in 2015.
Such is life in the NFL.