Offensively, the Dallas Cowboys don't have a lot of questions as far as starters go. But there are some decisions to be made about who the backups are and how many of each position will be carried. This is the second in a series I am doing, breaking down the entire current 90-man roster into position groups and presenting what questions the team has to answer, along with what the staff most likely already has sorted out. You can go back and check out my first installation on the quarterbacks here. Now I have a look at the running backs, and, because of the numbers on the roster and the way they are used are so closely intertwined, the fullbacks are also included.
The starter: Last season, DeMarco Murray went to the Pro Bowl and passed 1,000 yards on the ground. Not only did he prove his value on the field, he is in the last year of his contract and has every motivation to do even better in 2014. Look for him to have a fairly light workload in preseason, because the team doesn't need to find out anything about his skills, and it would be a good idea to make sure he's as healthy as possible for the season.
The change of pace back: Lance Dunbar saw considerable use in the OTAs and minicamp, and just seems like a perfect fit for Scott Linehan's style of offense. The Cowboys and their fans were only treated to a brief glimpse of what he can bring to the table last year. Look to see him in a lot more in obvious passing situations where he can be such a weapon coming out of the backfield, both as a receiver and to catch the other team off guard with some draw plays.
The battle of the backups: This is a fight for a roster spot that could go on until the last few cuts are made. Joseph Randle returns after a year as Murray's understudy to face free agent signee Ryan Williams. It is hard to get much of a solid read on the running back position in no-contact drills, so the reports have been a bit sketchy other than that Dunbar was being used in a lot of situations. Williams did get some nice mentions, and Randle is certainly vulnerable. He was not bad in 2013, but he really did not cement his position. I mentioned that the team does not need to see much of Murray. It would be a good idea to give these two the bulk of the carries to find out who can give the team the most on the field.
There is also the possibility that the team will carry four RBs on the roster. That would mean both these players would have a job, provided they can fight off . . .
The practice squad hopeful: Ben Malena seems a very good bet to go to the PS. He has an outside shot to turn some heads and beat out either Randle or Williams for a backup spot, but stashing him is the most likely outcome. He does have a reputation as a solid special teams type as well, but he is the longest shot here.
If the team goes with four running backs, and Malena makes the PS, then all of these players will be on the payroll this fall. Right now, being a running back on the Dallas roster comes with a pretty good chance to continue your football career.
In addition to deciding how many RBs to carry this season, the Cowboys have to decide whether they will have someone lining up to block for them.
The fullbacks: This leaves Tyler Clutts and J.C. Copeland fighting for a job that may or may not be there. Last season the Cowboys elected to go heavy at tight end and forego a fullback, although that may have been influenced by the relative lack of production out of Lawrence Vickers the previous year. Clutts was brought on later in the season, and the team seems happy with what he brought to the table. Rookie Copeland is probably carrying more weight than the team really wants him to at 275 lbs, so his future with the team could depend as much on what kind of shape he is in when he arrives at Oxnard as anything. He would still be PS eligible. This position is almost entirely dependent on how things go in preseason, not only as to who would fill the job, but whether there is even going to be a job to fill.
The availability of roster spots is possibly more important for this group than any other, since that may be the biggest challenge for several of these players. The Cowboys seem to like what they carried over from last year, since they just brought in three new guys to compete after dropping one backup, Phillip Tanner, off the roster. Strangely, if the team opted for four RBs and one FB on the 53, all seven of the players mentioned above could still be getting a paycheck from Jerry Jones if both rookies go to the PS. It's a long shot, but all in all, the odds are better for any member of this bunch than for most any other group on the team.