Despite not playing a single down all preseason, rookie DeMarco Murray’s roster spot at running back is obviously safe. With Felix Jones set to be a bit of a workhorse this season, the Cowboys’ final running back will likely need to play special teams. One of the contenders–Tashard Choice–doesn’t particularly enjoy playing special teams. Of the other two options, one (Lonyae Miller) has run tentatively in the preseason, while the other (Phillips Tanner) has been outstanding. Let’s break down the cases for each player. . .
- Tashard Choice
Choice had an up-and-down 2010 season, finishing with a C+ (78.9 percent) overall grade. In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I graded Choice as follows:
Short-Yardage Running: B-
Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film. To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate). He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job. Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.
Overall Running: C-
Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability. I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game. He needs some time to get going. Is that ideal? No, but it does appear to be the case.
When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well. He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option. He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?
Choice is a natural pass-catcher. Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.
Pass Protection: B
I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season. He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season. I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.
Choice has been a productive player for the Cowboys when given snaps, but Jason Garrett doesn’t like that Choice won’t play special teams (and for good reason). As a No. 3 back, it should be a given that special teams duties are in your future.
If the Cowboys cut or trade Choice, they could be in some trouble. Rookie DeMarco Murray is a true unknown at this point, and it would be quite risky to have No. 2 and No. 3 running backs with zero NFL experience behind a starter who has an above average chance of getting injured.
Thus, I think you’ll see Choice either get traded or make the final roster. If Garrett can get a mid-round draft pick for him, he’ll probably pull the trigger. If not, I don’t think Choice will be released, and he may even enter the season as the No. 2 running back.
Pass Protection: 7
Special Teams: 0
- Lonyae Miller
Miller has been awful in the preseason. Outside of a pancake block on Sunday night, he has been poor as a runner, receiver and pass protector. No. 3 running backs need to do a variety of things well, and Miller doesn’t do any of them at a particularly high level. He’ll play special teams, but again, that should be a given.
Pass Protection: 4
Special Teams: 5
- Phillip Tanner
Tanner has been one of the biggest surprises for Dallas this preseason. He runs with power and explosiveness, highlighted by his breakout performance on Sunday night. He kind of reminds me of a young Marion Barber, but with a lot more wiggle. He’s not afraid to lower his pads and hit a defender in the mouth, but he can run around them, too. You know that kind of attitude will translate well to special teams.
Tanner’s biggest con is his lack of experience. The Cowboys know what they have in Choice and even Miller, but Tanner’s uncertainty might scare off Garrett. If Jones gets injured and Murray isn’t as advertised, what happens if Tanner isn’t what we saw the other night?
Pass Protection: 6
Special Teams: 7
So far, I have been assuming the Cowboys will retain just three running backs. That is standard practice, especially with so many potential fullbacks and tight ends on the team. Of course, you want to keep as close to the best 53 guys on the team as possible, and if four running backs deserve to be on the squad, then they should all make it.
If Tanner continues to play as he did Sunday night, I don’t know how Garrett will cut him. It would be a bonehead move to try to sneak him onto the practice squad, in my opinion, because a running back-hungry team will scoop him up in no time. His presence on the roster would lead to too much inexperience at running back, though, so I think he should be the fourth running back behind Jones, Murray and Choice. Unless Miller can suddenly learn to kick field goals with great accuracy, he isn’t making this team.