Dallas Cowboys running back roster evaluation.
Starter: Marion Barber III – I’m designating MB3 as the starter even though nominally Julius Jones was the starter. In reality, MB3 fulfilled the starter role and the Cowboys organization has signaled it’s intention that MB3 will be the starter in 2008.
Barber is a rough-and-tumble RB who never met a defender he didn’t want to hit. His physical style combined with a wicked stiff-arm that is more like a jab allows him to dish out as much punishment as he takes. Used primarily as a specialty back – short yardage, 3rd-down, goal line – during the early part of his career in Dallas, Barber started his ascent to ‘feature’ back late in the season last year. He continued that climb in 2007 even though he was only able to supplant Jones as the actual starter in the Cowboys last playoff game. Barber runs in the mode of a power-back, rarely going down on first contact and it usually takes more than one defender to finish him off. He does possess some elusiveness out in space and has the ability to reverse field to find the cut-back lanes and he can get outside on sweeps. He’s decisive about picking a hole and hitting hit and he can ‘get small’ in squeezing through space in the line. He’s a very willing blocker in pass protection and can be counted on running pass routes out of the backfield. The only thing Barber lacks is the breakaway speed to be considered a true homerun threat. On occasion he will dance, going east-west instead of heading upfield north-south, to his own detriment.
The main debate about Barber is whether his punishing running style will allow him to remain healthy if he was used as a true feature back. Throughout his college and pro career he has always shared time with another back so the theory has never been fully tested. I’m of the opinion that he wouldn’t have any more of a problem with carrying a full-load than the many physical runners that have preceded him the NFL. He’s never had injury issues with the Cowboys.
The Cowboys will probably continue to run a two-back system in the future so Barber’s carries will be limited to some extent, although he should now be the guy with the majority of the carries instead of the split he’s seen previously. The big question is MB3’s contract status. He’s a restricted free agent and the Cowboys have indicated that they would like to get him signed to a long-term deal. There’s a lot of speculation on what kind of money MB3 would want though it's fair to say he would want compensation in-line with what other starting RB's get. If the Cowboys can’t get a deal done they could tender him at the highest level in which case another team would have to sacrifice a 1st and 3rd-round pick to get him, something I don’t believe would be likely.
Julius Jones – At one time thought to be the main back in the Cowboys offense for the future, he fell out of favor with both the previous coaching regime and the current regime. Jones often showed poor vision by picking the wrong hole or making a bad cut and consistently left yards on the field. In addition, he usually goes down on first contact and fails to break tackles. Because of this, he rarely showed his speed and elusiveness at the second level. He’s an unrestricted free agent and the odds of him returning to Dallas appear to be nil.
Tyson Thompson – A straight-ahead speedster who’s failed to grasp the nuances of setting up the defense for cuts or jukes. Running backs require more than speed to get by in the NFL and Thompson has yet to show that he has the vision or instincts to be a productive back. He was replaced on the kick return team by Miles Austin. Thompson is a restricted free agent and the Cowboys might be willing to let him go to another team.
Alonzo Coleman – He was hurt for most of training camp so I can’t properly evaluate his skills. If he shows the Cowboys something over the offseason and he could possibly grab the #3 spot on the depth chart.