You would be hard pressed to find a running back in the NFL right now in a weirder situation then Darren McFadden. Acquired ahead of 2015, McFadden had the breakout year that we all knew the former fourth overall pick could behind the Cowboys' offensive line.
Despite his 1,089 yard effort, McFadden's Cowboys went 4-12, earning them the fourth overall pick. With that pick, he then saw Dallas draft his replacement, in Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott.
The Cowboys even went out to steal Alfred Morris in free agency, as another back that fit their scheme more than McFadden, but saw their lead back from 2015 get “veteran-courtesy” first team reps in mini camp. Before training camp in Oxnard though, McFadden broke his elbow in the strangest way, officially launching the Zeke Elliott era in Dallas.
Darren McFadden has been on the NFI list, ineligible to return through the first six weeks of the season. Now, like James Hanna (who has been on the similar PUP list), McFadden has a four week window to return to practice, and three weeks after his practice return to be activated, placed on the injured reserve, or released.
Ezekiel Elliott is obviously making it difficult for any other running backs to find prominent roles with the Cowboys, but having a veteran around like McFadden down the stretch to help manage the rookie's workload could be invaluable.
Depending on what this team also does at quarterback, McFadden could make for another solid option in the backfield with Tony Romo forcing defenses to back up. McFadden excels at hitting the hole quickly and bursting to the second level, something that cannot be taken for granted if you factor in the Cowboys' passing game with it.
As it is right now, Alfred Morris is still taking Elliott off the field on the third offensive possession for the Cowboys each week, and he is getting the job done at 3.9 yards per carry, securing the ball and running hard.
Could we see the Cowboys use both Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden to rest their emerging star in Ezekiel Elliott?
One recent sign that may help us answer this question is how the Cowboys have handled McFadden's contract situation.
Dallas has been paying Darren McFadden his full salary ($1.25M) while on the non-football injury list. They don't have to pay him anything.
— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) October 23, 2016
McFadden is still earning his salary with the Cowboys, which likely means that they envision him helping this football team at some point later in the season. Dallas would have to make a roster move to eventually bring McFadden in, and they have seen Lance Dunbar miss the last two games due to injury – already on a one-year deal signed this off season.
While Scott Linehan loves the versatility that Dunbar can bring, his availability is anything but reliable, potentially making him easier to move on from. McFadden would then have a chance with the Cowboys, showing some newfound durability in 2015 by playing in all 16 games for just the second time in his career, and for the second consecutive season.
Ezekiel Elliott is clearly the present and the future for the Dallas Cowboys at the running back position, but all along this team has showed a ton of respect for Darren McFadden – a bright spot from a miserable 2015 campaign.
Before Ezekiel Elliott became the running back of America's Team, I wrote in detail right here why McFadden should have had the edge on the top of the depth chart going into 2016 with Alfred Morris signed and Tony Romo expected to start at QB.
Darren McFadden: "I'm healthy. I'm ready to go. Whenever I get a chance to get out there, I'm going to be ready for it."
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) October 18, 2016
Now, when it comes to McFadden being healthy and ready to fight for carries alongside Elliott and Morris, only time will tell if the fourth leading rusher from a year ago will still be running the rock in the silver and blue anytime soon.