I love trying to read the tea leaves to find unexpected things that the Dallas Cowboys coaching staff may be up to. In the somewhat crazy days leading up to the draft, one of the places to find those leaves is the list of invitees to visit Dallas. Thanks to the excellent work OCC is doing in the related link below on keeping track of who has gotten invites as both national candidates and as part of Dallas Days, we can look over these college players and get some idea of what the team is interested in.
When you look at the positions the invitees play, you see mostly the usual suspects. Lots of defense, several interior O line players, some late-round wide receivers that could fill the third spot - and one thing I did not expect. Dallas has invited a couple of likely early-round running backs to come in.
Dallas extended one of their national invites to Doug Martin out of Boise State, and included Cyrus Gray of Texas A&M in Dallas Days because of his ties as a high school player at DeSoto, Texas. These two names buck most of the trends involved, and make me, at least, go "Hmmm".
The stuff after the jump is, of course, highly speculative, but then, it is the Mocking Season after all.
What really got my attention was the positonal ranking for Martin. On the CBS Sports Big Board of draft prospects, he is ranked as the number two running back in the nation, behind only Trent Richardson of Alabama. Since Richardson is seen as a top 10 talent, Martin is the first name on the board that could be available for Dallas when they come up. At 14, he does not seem much of a prospect for Dallas - but he is viewed as a late first round to early second round talent. And running back has been a position that is likely to slide in the draft of late, so there is at least a chance that Dallas could see him available when their turn in the second round comes up.
Gray is projected as a third round pick, which would make him a good fallback if Dallas did want to pick up another running back and Martin was not a good fit earlier.
If you want to check out the CBS evaluaton of the players, here is a link on Martin and here is one on Gray. They have some similarities, both being seen as hard hitters who can get the tough yards up the middle while still having breakaway speed if they get outside or to the second level. It sounds like the team may have a certain type of back in mind.
Now, going for a running back in the second or third round would likely elicit howls of protest around here not heard since . . . well, since a guy named DeMarco Murray got picked last year in the third round.
Of course, the fact that Murray is already on the team is an argument against the Cowboys using one of their top three picks to get another running back. But there is also the fact he went out for the season after getting hurt, plus the way the running game fell off at that point. Maybe Jason Garrett wants to make sure he has a strong replacement to run behind Lawrence VIckers, the free agent that most of us were very glad to see join the team.
I was probably a little more likely to think this is possible than most because of my own recent speculation about whether Dallas is looking to use more of the I formation this year. Felix Jones is a talented back, but not really the workhorse that Murray was proving to be before he broke his ankle. And he is returning from injury, as is Phillip Tanner, the current third RB. I think there are a lot of reasons for Jason Garrett to want to use more of a running game. First off, I think he just believes in it, and was very pleased with what he had while Murray was full speed last season. It also helps slow down the pass rush, which can only benefit Tony Romo. And the team is clearly working at upgrading the interior of the O line, which should improve run blocking as well as pass protection. And finally, you know he wants to have some confidence that the team can punch the ball into the end zone when it gets down close, which has been severely lacking lately.
The Cowboys also were doing a little research on some other running back possiblities at the Senior Bowl this year. They spoke with Terrance Ganaway out of Baylor, currently projected as a likely fifth rounder, and Travaris Cadet from Appalachian State, seen as a possible UDFA. These could be other options if the higher draft picks are needed elsewhere, although the CBS analysis of Ganaway paints him more as just a between the tackles runner. They don't have a writeup on Cadet, but the stats sheet shows that he has some receiving and return skills. But it is the interest in a couple of top 100 caliber players that really piques my interest. That may be an indication that this is seen as more of a need than the fans who are speculating out here had assumed.
One of the bits of conventional wisdom in the NFL is that you don't need to target running backs in the draft, or at least in the first few rounds, because so many college players can just come in and play. I think that is a bit overstated. Running backs have lost a bit of their cachet as the game has evolved to rely more on passing and are likely to slip down in the draft. But I do get a feeling from looking at some of the things going on that JG wants to make the ground game more of a focus for the Cowboys. And I am fairly certain that the Cowboys are going to do their homework on prospects rather than just pick one more or less at random in a late round.
The hints are small, but I would not be surprised to see the Cowboys get another RB in the draft this year. If so, then I think we will have a good indication that the team will be looking to pound the ball more in 2012.