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Best player in the draft might have to play waiting game

NEW YORK -- Best player in the draft.

That's what a lot of us keep saying about Darren McFadden. We say that he has the most talent, that he will have the greatest impact, that he is going to be everything the best player in the draft is supposed to be for the NFL team that lands him.

But if all of that is true, then why doesn't the dynamic running back from Arkansas already have a contract with the team that owns the top overall pick? Why did the Miami Dolphins decide to spend that choice -- as well as $30 million in guaranteed money -- on Jake Long, the offensive tackle from Michigan?

The simple answer is that the Dolphins believed they needed an offensive tackle more than they needed a running back. The more complex answer is that for all of his remarkable physical skills, the most notable of which is world-class speed, McFadden has just enough off-field baggage to cause some NFL teams to wonder if he's too much of a risk. Also, he plays a position that doesn't lend itself to nearly as much career longevity as offensive tackle or other spots. One day, you're Shaun Alexander, league MVP. A couple of years later, you're looking for a job.

But McFadden didn't come here -- along with Long and four other top college prospects -- to pout. He accepts that the Dolphins did what they felt was best for them. He accepts that regardless of his presumptive best-player-in-the-draft stature, teams with upper-tier picks will base their selection mostly on need.

"I don't have a problem with that at all," McFadden said. "Teams are going to go with what they need. Even though I might be the most talented player in the draft, some teams may not need a running back so they're not going to spend a lot of money on a running back."

McFadden isn't expecting to be the No. 2 overall pick, either. He expects the team holding that choice, the St. Louis Rams, to stay true to its top need and select a defensive player (such as Virginia's Chris Long, LSU's Glenn Dorsey, or Ohio State's Vernon Gholston). And McFadden doesn't anticipate being the No. 3 pick, which belongs to the Atlanta Falcons. He foresees another defensive player in that spot, too.

Where McFadden does see himself going is where so many projections have him going -- to Oakland, at No. 4, or to the New York Jets, at No. 6.

Both teams have at least semi-established running backs, yet both figure to covet McFadden's extraordinary ability to become an instant game-changing force. They are enamored with the fact he set a single-season Southeastern Conference record with 2,310 all-purpose yards, and that he also rushed for 206 yards and three touchdowns and passed for another in Arkansas' regular-season-ending upset of LSU.

They love his size (6-foot-1, 211-pounds), strength, speed, agility, along with his tremendous instincts and field vision.

At the same time, the Raiders and Jets seem satisfied that McFadden is not more trouble than he is worth despite involvement in a pair of nightclub altercations, one in January and one just before the 2006 season that resulted in a serious toe injury.

"Yes, I think (character questions are) something that I've answered," he said. "A lot of teams don't ask you as much about it as they used to. They've been talking with a lot of people that have known me for years, and they understand that I'm a good kid. It's not something that they have to worry about me causing trouble.

"I feel, with everything I've gone through, it's made me a better person."

The Raiders and Jets also seem to have no problem with another rap that critics have directed at McFadden: Skinny legs.

"Everybody's entitled to their own opinion," he said. "I know I've got skinny legs, but when it comes to what I did on the field, skinny legs don't matter."

When NFL personnel evaluators talk about McFadden, they promptly mention Adrian Peterson, whom the Minnesota Vikings made the seventh overall pick of the 2007 draft. And rightfully so. Like Peterson, McFadden has an impressive blend of power and explosiveness.

Whether that means McFadden can match Peterson's amazing rookie accomplishments last season -- Offensive Rookie of the Year and MVP of the Pro Bowl -- remains to be seen. But he is not setting out to be another Peterson. He doesn't pattern himself after any runner in the NFL. Football is a game McFadden has played since he was six years old, and, over nearly 15 years, he has developed his own style.

"I just go out there and play ball," McFadden said.

If he plays as well as many of us believe he can play, he just might prove that he deserved to be the No. 1 pick all along.

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