A lot was made of the Cowboys 3 headed monster at running back last year. You had your starter, Marion Barber, Your speed guy, Felix Jones, and your all around combo, Tashard Choice. In a lot of ways, the three headed monster was the driving force of the offence. It seemed the Cowboys went as their running game went. It also seemed like each week a different back emerged. All in all the Cowboys rushed for 2,103 yards last season, averaging 131.4 yrd/game. Those stats were good for 7th in the league with a very respectable 4.8 yards per carry.
With the backs that the Cowboys have, it is unlikely that they will be looking to add to the stable through the draft or free agency. But let’s take a closer look:
Starter: Marion Barber
There has been a lot of debate this offseason as to whether Marion Barber should return as the starter next season. It seems that Marion Barber is more productive coming off the bench. Barber’s best season was in 2007/08 when he came off the bench for Julius Jones. Barber averaged 4.8 yards-per-carry that year, the highest in his career so far. Barber has a style that is pounding and it seems that as the year went on his desire to lower the boom on opponents diminished throughout the year. It may be possible that for Barber to return to his “barbarian” self he needs to be kept fresh throughout the year. While is average yards per carry went up when he came in off the bench, his number of carries through the season isn’t that much different. Barber had only 10 more carries this past year as a starter which might throw off our theories. The main issue is whether Barber can maintain that punishing style of play over the long term. The average lifespan of a back in the NFL is just over 5 years. With Barber’s pounding style you would have to think that he is more vulnerable than the average. All this being said, there is no doubt that the Cowboys are happy with Barber in their backfield and will continue to look to him as a workhorse, whether he starts the game or not.
Jones was finally given the chance to play without needing to worry about injuries. After being held to only 6 games in his rookie season, Jones came out playing in 14 games last year. He had a break out season as well. Jones was the perfect compliment to Barber in the backfield. ”The Cat” brought pure speed and athleticism to the position and was able to prove why he was such a good pickup in the 2008 draft. Felix averaged 5.9 yrd/carry and racked up 685 yards on only 116 carries. Jones also was a threat out of the backfield on passing situations. Many argue that Jones should start the game and have Barber come in of the bench. It is hard to argue with his skill and speed and that might be the way the Cowboys go next year. Either way, Felix will get his carries and the Cowboys’ brass have a huge smile on their faces every time he does. The only drawback to Jones is his apparent injury concerns. He has missed games so far in both of his seasons (10 & 2). The nature of his position is such that it is rare that a running-back goes the whole season without getting hurt. Jones did prove last year that he can stay moderately healthy.
If Jones and Barber weren’t enough, the Cowboys have an excellent third piece to their puzzle in 3rd-down back Tashard Choice. Choice was used primarily on third downs and proved to be an excellent role player. After Choice burst onto the scene back in 2008 against the Steelers people have wondered what he could do for encore the following season, with both Jones and Barber healthy. While Choice was used primarily as a third-down back, he did handle the primary role in the “Razorback” formation (Cowboys’ Wildcat). His average per/carry climbed last season to 5.5, an increase from his rookie season. Choice is the perfect blend between Jones and Barber. He is best used as a change up back and is very good out of the backfield on passing situations. Choice in entering into a contract year and will be looking for more playing time or he might jump ship to a team that can get him more touches. It isn’t hard to argue that Choice is more deserving of playing time, but it is hard to see how that can happen with two really good backs in front of him.
The Cowboys seem pretty set at the position, for this year at least. Here are some potential draft picks that might be on the board for the Cowboys. This isn’t a particularly deep draft for running-backs but there are a few gems:
1. C.J. Spiller (Clemson) – It is unlikely that Spiller will be around at pick 27 for the Boys, but he is probably the most talented back in the draft. Spiller is an elusive speed back, similar to Felix Jones. He lacks size though, but makes up for it in explosiveness. Expect Spiller to go in the top half.
2. Charles Scott (LSU) – Scott is also unlikely to be available for the Cowboys. Scott is only 5?11 but weighs 230 pounds. He is a down hill runner who can blow people up. He is a bruiser with a little speed. The downside is he isn’t very good out of the backfield.
Backs the Cowboys will have a shot to get around the third or fourth round where they are likely to pick one are:
1. LeGarrette Blount (Oregon) – at 6?1, 248, Blount is a big back. He lacks elite speed but is quite fast for a big man. He is projected to be around a 3rd or 4th round pick and could be someone attractive to the Cowboys. Blount was suspended for most of the season after punching a Boise State player after their first game. Blount does have talent and could be a steal in the draft.
2. Anthony Dixon (Miss. St.) – Dixon is another big back that has some good power and decent speed. Dixon carries tacklers for extra yardage and can punish defensive backs with his hits. He does well at making himself a small target and deliver some good shots to defenders. Like Blount, Dixon does have some character issues. He was arrested for a DUI and teams will surely take note of that.
Other notables: Jahvid Best (Cal, 1st or 2nd Rnd), Toby Gerhart (Standford, 2nd/3rd), Stafon Johnson (USC, 4th/5th)