While the excitement builds among football addicts about the upcoming NFL Draft, there are a lot of decisions teams have to make about their rosters before that event. The Dallas Cowboys, coming off a 13-5 campaign, have a lot of these. Between the limitations imposed by the 53-man roster and the salary cap, teams are not always able to keep every player they would like to.
For the Cowboys, the most discussed name in this category is DeMarco Murray, whose wildly successful 2014 season may well be pricing him out of the team's ability to keep while managing the roster wisely. However, there are a variety of other players who may be caught in the same crunch, although for very different reasons.
One player whose future with the Cowboys is clouded by these considerations is another of the team's running backs, Lance Dunbar. His contributions to the team were limited, with only 99 yards on 29 attempts and 217 yards receiving for the year. He does not lack for talent, as demonstrated by the 80-yard run in the regular-season finale that was called back due to a holding call on Jason Witten. It is just the lack of opportunity on an offensive roster that is laden with talent that is limiting him.
In many analyses of the competition for roster spots, the chief competition for Dunbar is seen to be Cole Beasley. The wide receiver is getting those possession receptions that would seem to be something Dunbar could do well. Ironically, Dunbar and Beasley are in identical situations regarding their status. Both are restricted free agents who were signed for exactly the same money as UDFAs three seasons ago. But while Dunbar has largely languished on the bench, Beasley has steadily become a key cog in the Dallas offense. Although his numbers are not huge, with only 420 yards receiving in 2014, he did contribute four touchdown receptions. More importantly, he has become a trusted target for Tony Romo on third down. Arguably he is second only to Witten when it comes to who Romo looks for when he needs to get a conversion to keep a drive alive. And although it does not matter much to the team, he also has become a very important player to the media, since he allows television and radio announcers to compare him multiple times each game to Wes Welker. (The same people who refer to Adrian Peterson as "AP" rather than the correct nickname "AD" think this is the Welker effect. Knowledgeable observers of the game realize that this is properly termed the Danny Amendola effect.)
It appears that Beasley will definitely return to the roster. But actually he is not the main competition that Dunbar faces. Wide receivers and running backs only conflict with one another when the team is making the final decision on how many of each position to keep. Dunbar's main competition is going to come from other running backs.
If the prevailing opinion that Murray is not going to be wearing the Star next season is wrong, then he would take one of the running back spots. But even if he isn't on the team, Dunbar's job is still very much in doubt.
Joseph Randle seems to have one running back position locked up as the clear number two behind Murray last season. If Murray is taken out of the equation, that would leave at least two spots, which would on the surface make Dunbar's chances of getting a new contract very good. The team could opt to go for four running backs if it did not keep a fullback, but the decision last year was to carry one, and with the continuity of the coaching staff, it is a reasonable assumption that the Cowboys will do the same for 2015.
However, the Cowboys signed Ryan Williams from the practice squad to a reserve/futures contract. That is not remarkable, since most of the rest of the PS was also signed. What raised eyebrows was that Williams received the largest guarantee of any player on a reserve/futures contract, and it was by a wide margin. He got $240,000 just to ensure he was available for offseason work and training camp. That kind of money has to signify that the staff has a lot of faith in him. Dunbar is primarily a change of pace back and not likely to be able to carry a heavy workload. Williams, like Randle, is more able to be an every down contributor. Given how important Murray was to the offensive scheme while getting almost all the carries, it stands to reason that the Cowboys would put more value on a back that could do something similar, even if the plan going into the season is more to use the running back by committee approach. If one of the rotational backs goes out with an injury, you would prefer to have someone who could take on an increased workload at least in the short haul. Dunbar does not appear to be that kind of back.
Dunbar is also likely to see competition from a drafted player. This year's crop of running backs is one of the deeper positions. Given the devaluation of the running back position as a top need in the draft, the Cowboys could easily find a player they judge to be more valuable than Dunbar, even if they hold off to the middle rounds.
Even though as a restricted free agent Dunbar would get a minimum offer, both Williams and a draft pick would also be very economical, so there is no advantage for Dunbar there. The issue for him is that his role just is not as badly needed by the Cowboys as others. He has done everything the team has asked him to, but in 2015, there may just not be a real need for him.