Dallas Cowboys Running Back Breakdown: Full Evaluation and Depth Chart Analysis
It's been suggested that the NFL is a ''passing'' league, which it always has been.
Most importantly, the game of football is about running the ball, which it also always has been.
The Dallas Cowboys seem well positioned in the backfield with numerous young running backs that offer plenty of capability. This, of course, assumes that the Dallas offensive line will perform better in 2013 than it did a year ago—there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it should.
The Dallas offense has never finished better than 7th in the NFL in rushing under head coach Jason Garrett. This came in 2009, during Garrett's final season as offensive coordinator. That was also the last year the Cowboys both made the playoffs and won a game in the postseason.
In all other seasons, beginning in 2007 with Garrett as a rookie offensive coordinator, Dallas has never finished higher than 16th in rushing yards per game and fell all the way to 31st in 2012.
Again, pending a better offensive line, the main question concerning Cowboys running backs is whether or not Garrett cares to use them. Another mystery, at least concerning the heir-apparent in the starting lineup, is whether or not the starter stay healthy for once in his brief NFL career.
Can Dallas cough up a 1,000 yard rusher for just the second time since the departure of Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith in 2002?
I highly doubt that.
Can the Cowboys cross 2,000 yards on the ground, as an offense, to quite likely win the NFC East?
That idea has some legs, possibly.
Here's a look at the candidates charged with bolstering a rushing attack in this alleged ''make it or break it'' season for Garrett as head coach. The good news here is that no runner is beyond 25 years old, and most are even younger. The players listed fall in order based on my best guess as to what the depth chart will look like heading into training camp.
DeMarco Murray: Oklahoma (2011 NFL Draft, Round 3)
If he can ever stay healthy for a 16-game schedule, a trip to Hawaii awaits third-year veteran running back DeMarco Murray.
From an athletic standpoint, Murray is easily the best running back to grace the Dallas backfield since Smith. No offense to now-retired Marion Barber, but Murray is a complete back that really can do it all when he's on the field.
In two seasons, Murray has suffered as many injuries below the knees that have cost him a total of nine games.
In 2011, a fractured right ankle forced the former Oklahoma Sooner to miss the final three games during the regular season—Murray already had 897 yards rushing on a scorching 5.5 yards-per-carry.
A sprained left foot limited Murray to just ten games in 2012 and only 663 yards rushing.
Don't look now, but Murray has already suffered a tweaked hamstring during the first organized team activity for the Cowboys this week.
Murray's injuries to the feet might just be events that happened and may not be of the ''nagging'' category.
Hamstrings, on the contrary, are sometimes a recurring injury that can hamper a player over and over again. Murray missed the 2008 BCS national championship game with a similar hamstring injury that was more severe.
Maybe third time—or third season is a charm for Murray, but don't hold your breath that he plays in each game. If he does, Murray's involvement in the offense equals not only wins but better performance out of quarterback Tony Romo.
As I said before, it's a running league, and those who do that well contend for championships far more than those who don't.
Joseph Randle: Oklahoma State (2013 NFL Draft, Round 5)
Like the aforementioned Murray, Joseph Randle also arrives in the pros after forging a nice name for himself in the state of Oklahoma. Randle doesn't quite bring the gaudy statistics or experience that Murray did, but the former Oklahoma State running back certainly brings talent and youth to the depth chart.
The Cowboys felt that Randle was a similar runner to Murray and that he offered a sensible insurance policy for their incumbent starter next season. Owner and general manager Jerry Jones told Carlos Mendez of StarTelegram.com the following right after selecting Randle in the fifth round of the 2013 NFL draft:
We really could envision him coming in and having that many plays a game. One of the advantages, one of the reasons, we wanted him was because he really mirrors a lot of what Murray is, relative to a complete three-down back.
Randle only seems to differ from Murray in the speed and weight department, but the differences are really only split hairs. Randle catches passes and also comes from a rather potent offensive attack presented by the Cowboys in recent years in the Big 12.
Expect to see plenty of Randle in the coming season, but I would not be banking on any serious competition for the starting job so long as Murray is healthy.
A better bet might be to anticipate the possibility that Randle could be the eventual replacement for Murray in two years as the former Sooner will become a free agent following the 2014 season.
Lance Dunbar: North Texas (Undrafted 2012)
I recall after the draft last year that former North Texas tailback Lance Dunbar had been signed as an unrestricted free agent. As my father attended the same school back in the 1960s when it was known as North Texas State University, I thought I would share the good news. Knowing that the Mean Green isn't exactly the Crimson Tide, he simply stated, ''Uh oh—that's not good!''
But it might be better than he thinks.
Worth noting is that Dunbar holds numerous school records at North Texas. He's the Mean Green all-time leading rusher with 4,224 and is currently ranked first in career touchdowns with 49. He's also tops in career all-purpose yards with 5,375.
Dunbar saw very little action as a rookie last year, but he did see some thanks to the absence of Murray. As I previously mentioned, concerns over Murray's availability in the upcoming season aren't over apparently.
The next player will probably have the most to say about whether or not Dunbar ends up the third running back in 2013. I'm pretty certain the Cowboys will have three ball-carriers on the active roster.
Dunbar has a year under his belt and appears to be a potential weapon with the ball in his hands.
Dallas might be well served finding ways of doing that regardless of the top two running backs on the depth chart.
Kendial Lawrence: Missouri (Undrafted 2013)
Kendial Lawrence, another Dallas-Ft. Worth area product, arrives in Dallas much the way Dunbar did a year ago. While Dunbar fell out of the draft primarily due the fact he came from the Sun Belt Conference, I'll offer the likelihood that Lawrence dropped mostly due to limited size and experience.
Since we're talking about running backs that were undrafted at this point, a big time ace up the sleeve of Lawrence is his speed. He's easily the fastest running back on the roster heading into training camp and this really opens some doors. At his pro day at Missouri earlier this year, the former Tiger ran the 40-yard dash as low as 4.33 seconds.
While Lawrence can certainly afford to add a little weight for the NFL, his speed offers possibilities on special teams that Dunbar and the remaining undrafted free agent from 2011 might not be able to squeeze through.
This is a guy who needs the ball in his hands whenever possible, whether it's a couple of carries/catches per game or returning kickoffs. Dallas has been lacking a true weapon at kick returner for quite some time now.
The battle between Dunbar and Lawrence for, likely, the third-down running back gig will be among the most compelling in training camp. Lawrence, by himself, should make preseason games fun to watch despite the fact that most starters will see little, if any, action late this summer.
Phillip Tanner: Middle Tennessee State (Undrafted 2011)
Third-year veteran Phillip Tanner created a lasting memory for Dallas fans when he scored an apparent touchdown after losing his helmet during a preseason game against San Diego in 2011—his rookie year.
To this day, that's the only thing that I can say about Tanner.
I like Tanner's potential but the backfield is getting pretty crowded. Even with an injury to one of the top two runners, the Cowboys seem to have covered themselves where depth is concerned. I just think that younger undrafted free agents like Dunbar or Lawrence have the inside track.
But as the video clip shows, Tanner is a very hard runner that only needs a little bit of space in order to move the football—obviously he's not worried about his head nearly as much as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is.
Turning 25 years old as the preseason gets rolling, Tanner's best years of football could still be ahead of him, but the opportunity has to present itself to get on the field. This will be very tough in Dallas in 2013.
But sometimes opportunity knocks and if Tanner is around when it does, he could be a part of the Cowboys' offense moving forward.
The chances seem awfully low and the two names previously listed are the biggest reasons why.
Despite his physical nature, he's not in the same league as Barber used to be, and certainly fullback isn't an option as Tanner weighs just below 220 pounds.