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Cowboys roster evaluation: Running backs

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This is the second installment of a series of articles evaluating the Dallas Cowboys current roster in anticipation of the April draft. Part one dealt with quarterbacks and can be found here. This article reviews the Cowboys current running backs.

RB

The Cowboys have four running backs on its current roster (including the practice squad).

Julius Jones
Marion Barber
Tyson Thompson
Keylon Kincade

Starter - Julius Jones

Nobody on the current Cowboys roster has engendered as much debate this offseason as Julius Jones. After an article appeared in a Philadelphia paper stating that the Cowboys would listen to offers of trade for Julius' services, speculation has run rampant. Adding fuel to the fire was a report from last year's draft that the Cowboys attempted to trade Jones in order to get Laurence Maroney. Jerry Jones issued a denial that the Cowboys are actively attempting to trade Jones, but added the qualifier "unless we can do something in the draft." I've already written about this idea and concluded that unless the Cowboys can get a 2nd round pick for him, which seems unlikely given his contract situation and production, they will keep him for the upcoming season.  

Jones is an enigma as a running back. Fresh off injury in the 2nd half of his rookie year, he showed enormous promise and seemed to be on the fast-track to RB stardom. Since that time, he's had a few games that matched that promise, but generally has been a good, not great, running back. In 2006 he split a lot of time with Marion Barber and was seen as the starter in name, but gave way to Barber in the redzone and in the 2nd half.

Jones is viewed as the lightning to Barber's thunder. His main attributes are quickness and elusiveness, the Cowboys "homerun" threat. He operates best when he can get out into open space and has the ability to turn any run into a long gain. When Jones is on his game he can dominate play, but he can't consistently reach that level. In 2006, his early games of the season were his strongest when he combined his trademark elusiveness with some powerful running that resulted in a string of 100-yard games. Jones is never going to be the kind of back to run over the defender, but he was finishing off his runs strong and pushing the pile forward. Later in the season, his yards per game dropped significantly - as did his carries - and he specialized in finding the defenders instead of eluding them. By the end of the year Bill Parcells had turned to Marion Barber as the main back until a mini-resurgence by Jones in the playoff game against Seattle.

Jones is OK at catching the ball out of the backfield and OK at blocking out of the backfield, but those parts of his game will never be his strong suit. Where he does excel is when he can get through the line of scrimmage cleanly and use his cutting ability and quickness at the 2nd level. But that is the mystery about Jones; in some games you could swear he's one of the best backs in the league, in others you'll be begging for the coach to put in Barber.

Much has been made of the relationship between Bill Parcells and Julius Jones, to the point where Parcells has been accused of limiting Jones' creativity in an effort to make sure he got positive yards on every play. The argument went that Parcells had so programmed Jones to follow the blocking on every play that he was afraid to improvise and incur the wrath of the head coach. Whether this is true or not is hard to say but 2007 may lend some clues as he operates under a different coaching staff.

Reserves - Marion Barber, Tyson Thompson, Keylon Kincade

While Marion Barber is technically a reserve, he began to assume the role of co-running back with Jones, splitting time with him on a regular basis and receiving increased playing time as the season progressed. Originally drafted as a 3rd down back because of his receiving skills and blocking prowess, he also bloomed as a goal line specialist.

Barber is a power runner, the kind of back who can take on a tackler and make him pay. But he also possesses the ability to make defenders miss and is adept at running routes out of the backfield while displaying quality hands in the passing game. He's a decisive runner who picks his holes early and hits them with power. He is deceptive in getting through holes in the line by angling his body as to not take a full hit and usually emerges on the other side. He doesn't have the breakaway speed that Jones has, but he's not a plodder like some power backs.

The question always raised about Barber is whether he is an every down back. I confess, I don't quite understand this question. Is it his lack of speed, his durability, or something else? I would be grateful for anybody's explanation on this. It is true that in today's NFL many teams are using the tandem approach to the running back position, and it does seem to benefit the Cowboys offense to use this approach. But I still wonder why Barber is not considered to have the ability of an every down back.

Tyson Thompson is the true speed back on the Cowboys roster. When running in a straight line he can be very effective. The problem seems to be with his ability to make defenders miss; the innate ability in most backs that allows them to see the defense and to cut accordingly. He also may have problems with blitz recognition and blocking out of the backfield. He shows promise, but has yet to translate that into any meaningful playing time on offense. He does add value as a kickoff retuner on special teams.

Keylon Kincade is strictly an emergency option who may or may not remain with the Cowboys this year.

Draft implications

This is where it gets tricky. If the Cowboys stand pat with Julius Jones, then drafting a running back would not be a priority in the early rounds. The Cowboys may still want to get an additional runner on the roster in case they don't sign Julius to a new contract at the conclusion of the 2007 season. If, on the other hand, they do work out some kind of trade for Jones - again, I think this is unlikely - then they would have to move the priority of drafting a running back much higher on their board. In that scenario, a first day selection would almost be mandatory.