Heading into the 2008 NFL Draft, Dallas Cowboys fans could barely restrain their glee.
Their team, armed with two first-round picks, had fans dreaming, discussing, and debating which prospects their team would soon select come draft day.
With just one running back (Marion Barber) on the roster under contract heading into that offseason, most fans recognized running back would be a position of need.
While some fans fantasized about packaging the picks for a chance to trade up for Darren McFadden, others realized a more likely scenario would have the Cowboys selecting one of the other running backs of the deep 2008 class.
It was apparent the Cowboys would be looking to add some dash to compliment Marion Barber’s bash.
Two of the top prospects that appeared to fit that bill were East Carolina’s Chris Johnson and McFadden’s former Arkansas backfield mate, Felix Jones.
Both players sported similar size, college résumés, and playmaking ability.
Message boards and fan sites were filled with threads where fans championed either player, vigorously debating the merits of why the Cowboys should take their guy.
As it turned out, the Cowboys chose Felix Jones in the first round over Chris Johnson, whom the Titans ended up selecting two picks later at No. 24.
Each player had an instant impact on his team and both look to have bright futures ahead of them.
However, the obvious and over-simplified question remains: Who is the better running back?
The proverbial jury may be still out, but upon first glance it’s hard to deny Johnson’s fabulous first season.
Simply put, the Titans' 5’11”, 200-pound back is downright explosive.
Few players in the league can take the ball and make everyone else on the field look like they’re running in molasses; Johnson is one them.
Johnson was clocked at 4.24 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, which tied for the fastest combine time ever.
Unlike many speed demons, Johnson was able to transfer that speed onto the field.
Despite splitting carries with LenDale White, Johnson’s stat line for the year was impressive:
15 games, 251 carries, 1,228 yards, 4.9 YPC, nine TD, 43 receptions, 260 yards, and one TD.
Those numbers were good enough to send Johnson to the Pro Bowl. In fact, Johnson was the league’s only rookie to be named to the Pro Bowl.
One aspect of Johnson’s game that was underutilized was as a receiver. Coming out of college at East Carolina, Johnson was known for his able hands. Although it didn’t provide for much production, Johnson proved to be a capable outlet for Kerry Collins out of the backfield.
Expect to see the Titans utilize Johnson even more in this capacity as he enters his second season.
For the Cowboys' Felix Jones, his star shined just as bright as Johnson’s, just simply not as long. The 6’0”, 212-pound Jones offers the same take-it-to-the-house ability that Johnson has.
"Uncle Felix," as he’s affectionately called by his teammates, is fast (4.49). Not Chris Johnson fast, but fast enough.
Better put, Jones is football fast.
Jones is gifted with great vision, acceleration and lateral agility (all of which are demonstrated at the 1:42 mark of this clip).
Unlike Johnson, Jones played in more of a relief role to starter Marion Barber during his injury-shortened six-game rookie season.
Despite relatively limited reps, Jones put up some gaudy statistics that have Cowboy fans salivating at the thought of what he could do with an expanded role:
six games, 30 carries, 266 yards, 8.9 YPC, three TD, two receptions, 10 yards, 16 KR, 434 yards, 27.1 avg., and one TD.
Looking forward to the 2009 season, any success Jones has will be directly related to how offensive coordinator Jason Garrett incorporates him into the offense.
Garrett was criticized for not capitalizing on Jones’s ability by increasing his touches last season. Garrett is infamously remembered for not getting Jones even a single touch with the regular offense during the Week Four loss to the Redskins. Up to that point, Jones had scored in three straight games.
Jones wasn’t even a thought in the Cowboys passing attack in 2008. That figures to change as Jerry Jones has essentially mandated that Garrett find ways to get the ball into Jones’ hands by any means.
Jones could prove to be devastating to defenses on screens. If the Cowboys can perfect this play (which they’ve strangely struggled to consistently execute for years), Jones could alleviate some of the big-play potential that left with Terrell Owens.
The comparisons may never be on the level, as each player serves a different role for their teams (14 starts for Johnson vs. zero starts for Jones), but they will never cease.
At this point, the nod has to go to Chris Johnson, based on the fact that, well, he’s already done it.
Felix has to prove not only that he can stay healthy, but that he can continue to produce at a level similar to his 2008 pace for an entire season.
Oh man, I can already feel the ire of Cowboy Nation upon me.