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Dallas Cowboys UDFAs and Roster Battles: Running Backs

Phillip Tanner won our respect with his hard running in the 2011 pre-season, especially this helmetless ramble. But he is going to face some competition in making the team this year.
Phillip Tanner won our respect with his hard running in the 2011 pre-season, especially this helmetless ramble. But he is going to face some competition in making the team this year.

The Dallas Cowboys 2012 draft was exciting. Getting the best defensive player in the draft was just what the doctor, or at least Rob Ryan, ordered. After the dramatic first round move to snag Morris Claiborne, the team selected six other players that were new to most of us. I will freely admit that I had to look up everybody after Pick 6. But the information coming in on them seems to be mostly positive. And now the Cowboys have rounded out the roster with their UDFA signings, and will be conducting tryouts of some other candidates.

There is one big difference between Mo Claiborne and just about all the other rookies, though. Claiborne is largely assured of a roster spot. But for all the others, even third round pick Tyrone Crawford, the path to the final 53-man roster is much less certain. They will have to prove they deserve that spot more than other rookies, or other veterans.

Related: Dallas Cowboys 2012 Roster: We Want Your Pet Cats!

I already did a first attempt at a projected 53-man roster, based on who the Cowboys have competing for the position. The first thing you realize when you do this is that there just is not room for all the players that you like. The writers are going to be looking at the various signed UDFAs - I'm going to look at the running backs. And since they will most likely be competing for the third spot with second-year man and fan favorite Phillip Tanner, I thought I would compare him with the two UDFA running backs the team has signed, Lance Dunbar and Darrell Scott.

A closer look at the three after the jump.

I am using two assumptions here. First, DeMarco Murray and Felix Jones will be the top two running backs, barring injury in the pre-season. And second, the team will go with three running backs on the final roster, based on what it usually does.

Phillip Tanner: He has a leg up, in that he has made his way onto the roster and he already knows the system and playbook. But under Jason Garrett, I believe that the only thing that matters is whether he can prove on the field that he is better than the other candidates.

He is hindered to a certain extent by his lack of carries. He only had 22 touches for 76 yards and one touchdown. He also missed several games due to injury, only being on the game day roster nine times in 2011. But he is ready to go this year, despite the competition being brought in.

When Tanner recently stopped by MTSU, he acknowledged a few changes he's undergone through one year of NFL life, especially physical adjustments.

"I'm a lean 220 (pounds), and I take real good care of my body. My job depends on it," Tanner said. "I do some boxing now, which is something I picked up from Demarcus Ware. It's real good for cardio. I do yoga and work on my core so I'm able to take on blocks and do special teams, which is a big part of my job description.

"I needed to work really hard to make the team last year, and you have to be even better each year to make the team again."

Since he is going to be competing with two rookies to keep his position as the third running back, I thought it might be interesting to look at his size and college stats as one way to see how things might go.

Phillip is on the roster as 6'0" and 213 lbs (despite his comments above). His senior year at Middle Tennessee State he had 160 rushing attempts for 928 yards and caught 21 passes for 194 more. At his Senior Day, he had a 4.57 40, a 36" vertical, 10'03" broad jump, 4.40 20-yard shuttle, and 7.18 in the three-cone drill. He was injured his junior year and missed most of the season. A couple of other highlights form his MTSU career:

Tanner gained more than 3,000 all-purpose yards and scored 35 touchdowns (fifth-most in program history) in his MTSU career. A 2010 All-Sun Belt selection, Tanner is also one of only four MTSU players to be on three bowl teams in program history

Lance Dunbar: 5'09" 205 lbs. 4.47 40 time 35" vertical 10'00" broad jump, 4.07 20-yard shuttle, 6.87 three-cone. A little shorter, a little faster and more nimble. Here is the recap of his career and some key stats from his senior year taken from the University of North Texas site.

Career: Finished career as the all-time leading rusher in North Texas history with 4,224 rushing yards ... Ranks 1st all-time at North Texas in career touchdowns scored (49), 1st in all-purpose yards (5,375), Tied for 1st in career 100-yard rushing games (21) with Patrick Cobbs, 1st in career points scored (294), 1st in career rushing touchdowns (41), and 2nd in career rushing attempts (782) ... Has two of the top four single-season rushing touchdown marks and two of the top five single-season rushing yards marks in school history ... Became just the second back in North Texas history to post back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons with 1,553 yards in 2010 ... Only running back in school history with back-to-back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing year.

2011: Broke the school record for rushing yards in a game with 313 against Middle Tennessee ... Finished the year with 1,115 rushing yards, 12 total touchdowns and a career high 350 yards receiving ... Ranked 37th in the country in total yards rushing ...

A very solid career. He did have some injury problems earlier in college, but the three consecutive 1,000 yard seasons certainly indicate some durability that the Dallas staff should like.

Darrell Scott: 6'01" 231 lbs. 4.59 40, 31 1/2 vertical, 9'09" broad jump, 4.27 20-yard shuttle, and 7.10 three-cone. A bigger back, he still posted better agility numbers than Tanner. He was a transfer to South Florida from Colorado and only played one season there before deciding to leave school and take his chances on the NFL. Here is the recap of his year from the USF website.

2011: Appeared in 11 games, starting eight, at running back ... earned second-team All-BIG EAST honors ... rushed for 814 yards and five TDs on 153 carries (5.3 ypc) ... averaged 74.0 yards per game, which ranked 64th nationally and fifth in the BIG EAST ... his 5.3 ypc average ranked second among BIG EAST backs and 42nd nationally ... added 15 receptions for 169 yards and a TD ... posted five games with at least 80 yards, including two 100-yard games, despite never having more than 19 carries ... posted 82 yards and a TD against Ball St. ... notched 146 yards and three TDs rushing and and 84-yard receiving TD against FAMU ... tallied 87 yards and a TD against UTEP ... rushed for 100 yards at Rutgers ... added 94 yards rushing versus West Virginia.

I was curious why he left a school in a major conference for a much lower profile school, but looking over a couple of old articles indicates it was due to a reduced role with the Colorado Buffaloes. He apparently decided that he could get more carries at the smaller school. It was a bit of a surprise for him to come out in 2012, since he had a year of eligibility and the 2013 running back class was seen as offering less competition.

Looking at this trio, I am struck by the similarity of their backgrounds. They all played (at least most recently) at lesser-known schools. All had a good measure of success, but were not exactly going to burn up the draft. And all are now fighting to get or keep a spot as a backup on the Dallas roster.

How would you handicap them? I don't think anyone can be counted out, at least on what I see looking at their careers. As I indicated above, I think Tanner has the inside track right now, but Dunbar looks to me to be a player to watch. I just have a feeling he has a slightly better chance of cracking the lineup than Tanner has of holding him off, but that is without any practice experience to go on. I just like the consistency and production Dunbar has shown for the past three years. If Tanner does hang on to the roster spot, it will definitely be earned, because I think Dunbar is going to be pushing him hard.

Scott is the long shot in this trio, but he is also the biggest of the three. If the team decides it needs a bit more of a banger,that might swing things his way. I just don't think that is very likely. However, if the team were to go with four running backs, they might look harder at Scott, since he is a bigger guy. And he is close to Lawrence Vickers' size, so there may be some thought of trying him at fullback. It could land him a practice squad slot, with the experience of last season and the way the running game seemed to slack off a bit when Tony Fiammetta was injured.

This should go down to the last cut before the regular season. I do like Tanner. But for some reason, I just like Dunbar a tad more.

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