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Who to draft: Darren McFadden or Joseph Randle?

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Last year, DeMarco Murray set the fantasy world on fire rushing for a league-best 1,845 yards behind a stalwart offensive line in Dallas. When Murray left America's Team for the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency this offseason, it created the hottest debate in fantasy football: Who would take over the Cowboys' backfield?

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The team had young playmakers Joseph Randle (the presumptive leader) and Lance Dunbar (a change-of-pace specialist) in house, so rather than drafting an heir to Murray's throne like Melvin Gordon (as many suspected they would), they opted to sign annual fantasy disappointment Darren McFadden to create a log-jam of in the backfield. This move left little clarity for fantasy enthusiasts as to whom to draft then and, sadly, we know even less now. Despite Randle getting an edge in first-team reps during OTAs, the Dallas coaches have basically come out and said this will be a committee backfield as no one has become the lead dog.

"I just think that we have a complementary backfield," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "They're going to spread out the carries. Some games are going to be different than others ... Maybe one guy is going to have more in one game than the other or maybe sometimes two guys are going to split the carries, sometimes it's going to be three. Again, it's to be determined. It is a bit rare to have the one guy carry all the load. I tip my hat to DeMarco for being able to do it."

Sigh.

Now we have to wait until the pads come on in training camp and the preseason to decipher whether or not this is a true committee as Linehan is indicating, or if a true lead back can emerge. My asute colleagues Gregg Rosenthal and Conor Orr from "Around the NFL" lobbied for Randle and McFadden HERE, respectively, and I advise you to read their arguments before drawing your own conclusions.

To help our cause from a fantasy perspective, I took it upon myself in an act of fantasy self-flagellation to dive into the tape and numbers for both players and see what I could glean prior to the preseason. Below is my attempt to answer one of the fantasy offseason's most difficult questions: Who do you draft -- Darren McFadden or Joseph Randle?

Let's get dangerous.

The case for Joseph Randle

 

Attributes working in Randle's favor are youth, speed and a healthy dose of lateral agility. As you can see in the video below, Randle has the quick feet to change direction in tight spaces (whether behind the line of scrimmage or in the secondary) to leave defenders in the dust. Randle has nice top-end speed, as evidenced by his two touchdown runs of 40-plus yards in 2014. He also scored highly in Pro Football Focus' "Elusiveness Rating" metric, finishing lower than Marshawn Lynch (the highest rated starting RB), but just ahead of Jonathan Stewart, Eddie Lacy and C.J. Anderson (the other top RBs). What's more, of running backs with 50-plus carries, only Latavius Murray boasted a higher breakawy percentage (also per PFF) than Randle.

Now, the flip-side of this argument is that Randle's need for the big-run limits his every-down appeal. In Randle's carreer, in games where he's had 10-plus carries he has averaged a paltry 2.54 yards per carry average in those games -- even less than McFadden's subpar average of 3.34 yards per carry over the past three years. Take away Randle's 40-yard TD scamper against Jacksonville and his 65-yard garbage time TD against the Redskins, and Randle's gaudy 6.7 ypc average in 2014 drops to more reasonable 4.85 average (DeMarco Murray posted a 4.7 ypc average last year -- but on 392 totes). However, I'm in agreement with Rosenthal in that you can't use Randle's big-play ability against him. It's part of his game, and part of the reason why he could thrive if given the chance behind the Dallas offensive line.

Randle made headlines this offseason when he claimed Murray "left some meat on the bone," and after watching Randle's tape I think he can succeed in this offense, too. But post 1,800-plus yards? I'm not so certain. Randle, like Murray, missed a fair-share of holes. Let's just say no one was able to down the entire steak offered by Dallas' o-line. Moreover, he will need to withstand the punishment of 16 games on his body as Murray did, but with a slightly smaller frame. Factor in Randle's rash of trouble since October (two arrests) and there's reason to be concerned about investing too highly in this Oklahoma State product. Still, the talent, offense and upside are all there, which is the reason his ADP has been rising all offseason.

The case for Darren McFadden

 

Too old, too slow, bust, Raider. Run DMC has been showered with such drubbings for ... well, basically his entire career. The electric rusher from Arkansas was derailed by injuries early in his career, as a total of 15 injuries cost him 29 games over his first six seasons. When he was able to put it all together, he was a force to be reckoned with as we saw in 2010 (1,157 rush yards, 5.2 ypc, seven rush TDs). However, that was a single magical season that McFadden hasn't lived up to since. But could he be entering a career renaissance rushing behind one of the league's best offensive lines and quarterback?

Diving into McFadden's tape, I was surprised to see a runner who still had some of the burst, power and vision that made him the fourth overall draft pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. His lack of production over the past few years (the aforementioned 3.3 ypc) is moreso a product of an incapable offensive line (and offense in general) than purely McFadden's skills (or lack thereof). As Orr mentioned, Run DMC often looked surprised to make it to the second-level, rather than like he expected to be there. I watched McFadden get pummeled behind the line of scrimmage so much, I felt like Tank watching Morpheus get whooped on by Agent Smith and the cops in "The Matrix." Or the "Stop, stop he's already dead" kid from "The Simpsons". It was bad. Really, really bad. However, when given even a small crease, or, god willing, a hole like in the video above, McFadden was actually able to move the chains and, you know, do his job.

The "slow, old, bust" narrative has been overblown on McFadden. The runner I spent a hours watching this week still had vision, burst and the power to finish runs. Is he going to put together electric highlights like he did at Arkansas? Most likely not. But could he be a solid fantasy contributor in the Dallas offense, churning out consistent 4- to 7-yard runs? Absolutely.

The Verdict

 

In a perfect world, you'll be drafting in late August and this battle will have a clear winner. However, fantasy football is far from a perfect world. I know some leagues draft insanely early, and that owners will be forced to make a decision on Randle and McFadden before we have time to collect all of the data.

So based on everything I've read, heard, watched, studied and analyzed, if your fantasy draft is before training camp starts, both players need to be drafted. I'd take Randle first based on his youth, upside and current standing on the depth chart. But McFadden shouldn't be far behind. Further indication of how murky this backfield picture is comes in the form of their respective ADPs. Here's how they look from three separate sites:

NFL.com: McFadden (Round 6), Randle (Round 10)
MyFantasyFootball.com: McFadden (Round 11), Randle (Round 10)
FantasyFootballCalculator.com: McFadden (Round 9), Randle (Round 4)

For me, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle of all of these. I've seen Randle go as high as Round 3, and that's ludicrous given what we know now. My advice is to take Randle somewhere in the Round 5-6 range, with McFadden coming off the board a bit later, ideally in Rounds 7-8. This way, your fantasy team won't be reliant on either as a weekly starter, but can reap the benefit of a potential breakout. The risk is too great to pass up a true lead-back like Frank Gore or Jonathan Stewart in the earlier rounds for one of these two backs. Could Run DMC or Randle out-score the players taken ahead of them? Sure. But mitigating the risk of either busting is more important than lobbing up a Hail Mary like drafting Randle in the third round.

So there you have it. If you're drafting between the Fourth of July and the start of training camp, take Randle over McFadden. Both need to be rostered though, as if this does turn into a true committee they should both be able to put up solid fantasy totals. In the end though, this debate is far from over. We're 10 weeks out from the start of the NFL season, and anything could happen. Stay tuned, and good luck drafting.

-- Alex Gelhar is fantasy football writer/editor for NFL.com, and huge cinephile. Hit him up on Twitter @AlexGelhar for movie recommendations or fantasy advice (he answers most questions!). Oh, and be sure to listen to the revamped NFL Fantasy LIVE podcast! Or just download it and don't listen. Alex will be happy either way.

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