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(Re)building The Cowboys Roster: Will 2012 Be Felix Jones' Final Year In Dallas?

2012 will likely be Felix Jones' last season in Dallas
2012 will likely be Felix Jones' last season in Dallas

During the draft, the team's official website streams live coverage of the Cowboys' war room. Most of the time, there's nothing much to watch; however, when something unexpected happens or a potential trade (such as their trade-up for Morris Claiborne) is in the works, we witness a flurry of activity, offering viewers a clue that something is afoot long before it actually develops. For the better part of the draft, all was quiet on the war room front, but as we wound our way through the sixth round, the war room was suddenly in a tizzy. Three picks later, the Cowboys chose Oklahoma tight end James Hanna.

Why the tizzy over a receiving tight end with questionable hands? Because the player they had been targeting at pick number 185, Texas A&M running back Cyrus Grey, had been snatched up by the Chiefs three picks before the Cowboys came on the clock. To my mind, that frenzy of activity is telling: the front office really wanted to add a running back to the roster in April. As a local product, Grey was a "Dallas Day" invitee; in addition, the Cowboys spent one of their national invites on Boise State's Doug Martin.

At first glance, this seems a peculiar allocation of resources. In DeMarco Murray, Felix Jones and Phillip Tanner, Dallas boasts a deep and talented stable of running backs, with a great balance of skills and running styles. Why the investment in another back, especially one, in Martin, who was likely to command at least a second round pick?

We'll try to answer this question after the jump...

For an answer, we need look no further than Felix Jones' contract. In a recent post, I took a look at which Cowboys are scheduled to become free agents at the conclusion of the 2012 season. Atop the list sits a group of recent premium draft picks in OLB Anthony Spencer and 2008 first-rounders Jones and Mike Jenkins. At first glance, it might seem that the most likely of these players to return in 2013 and beyond would be Jones. There main thought behind this notion is that running back, unlike the positions played by Spencer and Jenkins, is no longer a premium position. Indeed, I have espoused this theory on these very pages; give the pass-happy nature of the current NFL landscape, POGI (positions of great import) no longer includes running back.

In a recent article, Sports Illustrated's Don Banks, who, for my money, is one of the best NFL writers out there, suggests that the league disagrees with this assessment. Examining the recent contracts doled out to Baltimore's Ray Rice and Chicago's Matt Forte, Banks concludes that, for all the talk of running back as a "disposable position" where players are both plentiful and quickly used up, the top ballcarriers are getting paid, and handsomely. Banks writes:

And here's the real news flash that Monday's developments underlined: That kind of big-money move at running back is becoming something of the norm, not the exception. And such moves are shooting holes -- or perhaps more accurately, zeros -- in the perception that the league won't pay handsomely for rushing talent.

To substantiate his claim, he offers a litany of examples, ranging from Adrian Peterson to LeSean McCoy, of running backs that have freshly-inked big-dollar deals. Eight of the league's 32 teams, Banks notes, have recently re-upped their top runner.

What does this mean for the Cowboys? I think even the most fervent Dallas fan would be hard pressed to number Felix Jones among the league's elite runners. Nevertheless, these lucrative deals have driven up prices in the running back market. If we can agree that Jones is, say, 60% the back that Rice is, and should be paid accordingly, we're still talking about a contract in the 5-year, 25 million range, with perhaps 15 million guaranteed. With Murray having emerged as the team's lead back, and Jones never demonstrating the same capability, can the Cowboys justify paying Jones that kind of money?

The NFL Network's Brian McIntyre, stopping in Dallas on his tour of the all 32 teams' various salary cap situations, reaches exactly this conclusion. Given the nature of several of the Cowboys' contracts and the likelihood of the cap remaining fairly flat in 2013, he doesn't believe that any of the aforementioned '07 and '08 first-rounders will wear the star in '13 and beyond.

I'm fully prepared for this possibility eventuality. Still, I'll miss Jones' explosiveness. Recall the fold play for a 60-yard score at Green Bay in '08; the electrifying 73-yard off tackle gallop to clinch a playoff victory against the Eagles in '09; the scintillating open field run to turn a screen pass into a 71-yard score at New York in Jason Garrett's first game as head coach in '10. Those are rare plays, from a player with a special skill set, and they will be hard to replace.

In April, the Cowboys tried to find a replacement, and were thwarted. I'll bet we'll see quite a few collegiate running backs invited to Valley Ranch this Spring in anticipation of the 2013 selection meeting.

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