This is the second part in my series analyzing the Cowboys roster.
I wrote in my quarterbacks analysis that the Cowboys are a blessed franchise, and no position is this more evident than at running back. Few teams can boast two runners in their history like Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. The standard those two have set makes it difficult for anyone to measure up. And the two runners couldn't have had more contrasting styles. Smith was the epitome of hard work, determination, a never-say-die attitude. Dorsett was as graceful as you will ever see, and had breath-taking natural ability. But the traits the two runners shared are what made each of them great. Both players had the uncanny ability, a God-given gift, to glide along the line of scrimmage, and then hesitate or accelerate at precisely the right moment and find the smallest crease when it didn't even seem like one existed. Vision and feel are what separated Smith and Dorsett from the pack and made them franchise running backs.
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Julius Jones in the 2nd round of the 2004 draft, after having an opportunity to select Steven Jackson, but instead choosing to trade down. The Cowboys traded their first round draft choice (22nd overall) to the Buffalo Bills that year in exchange for Buffalo's 2nd round pick in '04 (Julius Jones), Buffalo's 5th in '04 (Sean Ryan) and Buffalo's 1st in '05 (Marcus Spears). Jackson broke out with the Rams in 2006, rushing for 1,528 yards (4.4 avg) and adding another 806 yards on 90 catches. We're still waiting on Julius. He's flashed the skills and teased us at times, rushing for 2 of the top 4 games in Cowboys history, but he's yet to do it on a consistent basis.
Part of Jones' problem has been injuries. He managed to stay healthy in 2006 and played in all 16 games for the first time in his three year career. Julius missed 3 games in 2005 with a high ankle sprain, after sitting out first 8 games of his career in 2004 with bruised ribs and a broken shoulder blade. One of the knocks on him coming out of Notre Dame was that he didn't play through injuries, but I wouldn't say that has been the case with Cowboys, his injuries have been legitimate. And 2006 went a long ways towards easing concerns about his durability.
This offseason, after Bill Parcells departure, Jones came out publicly and said he felt felt like he was running like a robot last year, and instead of using his instincts, he was over-coached and told where to run. I'm glad Jones said it because it's what a lot of us were thinking last year. Whether or not it's true remains to be seen, but he said it and now the onus is on him to prove it. J.J. certainly ran more mechanical last year and his instincts were lacking, the cause is still unclear. He also complained about his role in the offense, as his carries decreased dramatically in the second half of the season. This coaching staff is fully aware of Jones' abilities and they will give him opportunities to make plays.
"He's been productive here. I think he'll continue to be. He's a good screen runner, good draw runner, stretch outside runner that can cut. We're going to get him the ball as much as we can." Head coach Wade Phillips
The fact is, Marion Barber should've carried the ball more than he did last season. Barber (pictured, A.P.) averaged almost a yard per carry more than Jones (4.8, 4.1), and when you consider that more of Barber's carries were in short yardage and goal line situations, he was a far more effective runner. Sharing the load is nothing new to Barber. He split time with Laurence Maroney at Minnesota, and Barber was the more effective runner there, too. And Barber is a complete back. He's a very good receiver and an effective blocker. Maybe partly because of this, his running skills are underrated. He's not considered a homerun threat and he is a little stiff in the hips. But he ran a 4.48 in his campus 40 test and that's as fast as many of the top backs in the NFL. And stiff hips or not, Barber can find the hole. Of his 135 carries last season, 46 of them went for a first down. Barber was a great pickup in the 4th round of the 2005 draft. I want to see more of him this season. Vision and feel. Not to mention power and energy.
Tyson Thompson is a homerun threat. Signed as an undrafted free agent after the 2005 draft, Thompson made the team and immediately made his mark on kickoff returns, averaging 24.5 yards per return. He had even more success last year (26.0) before a broken ankle in the 7th game ended his season. Look for the Cowboys to try and get Thompson on the field a little more this year and see if they can get that burst of speed alone in the open field a few times. He will have some competition for kickoff returns this year. Miles Austin looked good in that role when Thompson was out, and the Cowboys drafted a player they feel will be a multi-purpose threat in Isaiah Stanback. To put Barber's 4.48 in perspective by the way, Stanback ran a 4.58 (which is surprising because the guy can supposedly fly, setting a few records in the 100 meters. I'll get to that later on). But, anyway, speed is a very overrated skill in a running back. But a runner needs enough of it. Barber has enough. Tyson Thompson has more than enough.
The Cowboys signed Jackie Battle as an undrafted free agent after this year's draft. And they have had an undrafted running back, Keylon Kincade, on the practice squad for most of the past two seasons. Kincade is a smallish, workhorse type with marginal ability and he was released in November. Battle is a much better pro prospect. He fought through injuries in college, but he was a force when healthy, scoring 29 TD's in 41 games at Houston (15 starts) with 2,120 yards rushing (4.8 avg). Battle is 6-2, 235 and he ran a 4.42 in his campus 40 test. He is a powerful, bruising, one cut runner with a lot of quickness and explosion. Battle is most commonly compared to Travis Henry of the Broncos, but his style also resembles Marion Barber. Among his injuries at Houston were left knee meniscus surgery (2002), high left ankle sprain (2003) and a torn tendon in two fingers on his left hand (2004). I think the Cowboys may have found something here and I expect him to land a position on the practice squad, and he may contend for a roster spot with a few breaks. Battle played tailback at Houston, and if you're thinking about his potential at fullback (I am), he's known as a tough blocker but a marginal pass receiver.
The Cowboys also signed Alonzo Coleman as an undrafted free agent after this year's draft. Coleman is 5-10, 207 and he was extremely productive at Hampton, breaking 1,000 yards all four years at the school, and finishing with 4,642 yards (5.6 avg) and 62 TD's. He has excellent quickness and good speed, running an average time of 4.40 in his campus test and 4.52 at the combine. Coleman is extremely strong, offensive lineman strong, and put up 27 reps of 225 pounds in the bench press at the combine. He was very durable in his college career, missing only one game due to back spasms. Coleman runs through arm tackles and shows good leg drive. He is a poor blocker and was used very little as a pass receiver. It's a guess what to make of Coleman because he was very productive in college but against sub-par competition. He has ability but he will need practice squad time if he sticks.
This will be a very telling season for the Cowboys' future at running back. The Cowboys have two first round draft choices next season and they should be able to get any player they want in the draft, if they want him bad enough. And there happens to be a franchise running back, who is eligible to declare for the draft in 2008, named Darren McFadden, who hails from the University of Arkansas, where a certain high ranking member of the organization attended. (What's his name again...) McFadden has vision and feel and everything else you can think of that a bell cow runner needs. Before the Cowboys make that determination though, they want to see one more season of Julius Jones and I'm not ruling out Marion Barber being able to handle the load full time, if given the chance.