ALAMEDA (CBS/AP) — Coach Hue Jackson spent much of training camp telling people that Oakland Raiders running back Darren McFadden belonged in the conversation about elite backs in the NFL.
McFadden has proven his coach right during the first three weeks of the season by leading the league in rushing and proving that last year’s breakout campaign was no fluke for the former No. 4 overall pick, who struggled his first two seasons.
“He’s the best in football bar none,” Jackson said. “Bar none.”
After rushing for a career-high 171 yards last week against a New York Jets defense that is known for its stinginess against the run, McFadden leads the NFL with 393 yards rushing and is a major reason for the Raiders’ early success this season.
The days of being overshadowed by higher-profile backs like Adrian Peterson and fellow 2008 draftee Chris Johnson are long in the past.
“I guess two years ago I was a bust. Now I’m the best running back in the league. So it’s something I really don’t pay attention to,” McFadden said. “I just keep going about it how I’ve been going, just going out there practicing hard and keep grinding.”
McFadden’s attitude hasn’t changed since his first two ineffective years in the NFL but his production sure has. After being picked 20 spots ahead of Johnson in 2008, he rushed for just 856 yards and averaged only 3.9 yards per carry while dealing with turf toe and shoulder injuries.
He scored just one touchdown in 2009 and had just one run of at least 20 yards during a 23-game stretch spanning his first two seasons.
That all changed last year, when McFadden finally showed the Raiders the skills he displayed in college at Arkansas, where he ran for 41 touchdowns in three seasons, including nine that went for at least 50 yards.
That turnaround began when Jackson came in as offensive coordinator and sat down with McFadden before last season to find out what plays he likes to run.
“He wanted to put you in a position that you could make plays,” McFadden said. “He felt like that was something they need to do, is ask me what plays I like to do. I just told him what I like to do, and he’s going out there to put me in a position to make plays and I’m trying to make those plays when the opportunity is presented.”
McFadden has done that again this season with a 47-yard run in the opener in Denver, the 70-yarder against the Jets and three other runs of at least 20 yards to tie for the league lead in explosive runs.
“He’s able to get from point A to point B faster than anyone I’ve seen,” quarterback Jason Campbell said. “He can get in a hole and shift out and make two guys miss and get down the sideline. He’s just as fast as some of our receivers, and everyone knows we’re a fast bunch.”
McFadden is also Oakland’s leading receiver with 11 catches for 84 yards and does a good job picking up blitzes, which allows him to stay on the field in passing situations and has earned him praise for being a complete running back.
Offensive coordinator Al Saunders has compared McFadden to greats he has coached in the past like Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk and Priest Holmes.
“He’s a special player,” Saunders said. “He’s gifted, he brings such a dimension to any team, I’ve been fortunate to be around some great running backs, but he’s one of those guys you put in that class. He’s a young kid that has just tremendous speed and tremendous potential, he catches the ball extremely well and I think he established what he is last year and he’s continuing to follow in that way this year.”
McFadden’s ability opens up the field for his teammates as defenses key on Oakland’s best player. At one point against the Jets, McFadden went in motion out wide to the left side of the field, bringing the cornerback with him. That forced a linebacker to guard receiver Derek Hagan, who took advantage of the mismatch for a 13-yard catch.
That was payback for Hagan’s key downfield block on McFadden’s 70-yard run earlier in the game. Receiver Chaz Schilens also made a big block down field on the play that started with tight end Kevin Boss’ seal at the line of scrimmage.
“Shoot, you block a guy for two seconds and you look and he’s 50 yards downfield,” rookie guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “It makes our job easy. Sometimes we make him look good, we open a big hole, and other times we miss a couple of people but he makes us look good anyway. So it works out well for everybody.”
Notes: FB Marcel Reece (ankle), CB Chris Johnson (hamstring), DE Matt Shaughnessy (shoulder) and WR Louis Murphy (groin) missed practice. … S Michael Huff was limited after leaving Sunday’s game with a concussion. S Mike Mitchell (knee) practiced for the first time since early August and WR Jacoby Ford (hamstring) was back after missing the past two games.
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