It is reasonable to assume that part of the calculation for the Dallas Cowboys when they declined to try to outbid the Philadelphia Eagles for DeMarco Murray was the depth of the 2015 running back class in the NFL draft. Even though the team has signed Darren McFadden, that is almost certainly an insurance move. The real replacement for Murray should be a rookie. The list of possible candidates is long and full of talented options, but there are 32 other teams looking over the prospects, and getting the right player is going to take some intelligent use of the precious draft picks.
It is always a guessing game to figure out when players are going to be available in the draft. At this time of the year, hardcore fans (like me) become a teensy bit obsessed with how our team is going to approach the puzzle that is the selection of college players available. The general consensus is that a quality back can be found deep in the draft, but obviously the higher a player is taken, the better the odds he is going to be a success.
So where should Dallas take a running back? There has been a vigorous debate about that, and it is driven by who might be available at a the point that the Cowboys go on the clock. If you read through the multitude of draft boards and projections, there seem to be two names that consistently show up as likely first-round picks. Todd Gurley seems to be the top RB talent, if he is fully healthy. Melvin Gordon is the other likely first-rounder, seen as less spectacular but with durability and an ability to pound out the hard yards up the middle.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have done a solid job of filling needs through free agency to allow them to use more of a best player available approach in the draft. But that is a fluid concept. "Best player available" is gong to be influenced very much by both the system and philosophy of the team and the needs it has. Right now the biggest need on the team outside of running back appears to be the secondary. There are also several other positions that could represent players that the Cowboys might not want to pass up.
There also is a very serious question about whether one of the two consensus first-round worthy running backs will be available when the 27th pick comes around. Trying to factor in those previous 26 picks is a herculean task. Each team takes its own approach to how it factors in need and best player available. Every year we see how far off the endless mock drafts and projections can be, but we have to try to glean some insight from them. At NFL.com, they tried to determine the top five draft needs of all 32 teams. Of them all, they only listed eleven teams who had running back as one of the top five needs. None of them were seen as having a running back as the top need. And only one team was judged to have running back as the second highest priority. That team is the Dallas Cowboys, with cornerback as number one. Offhand, that does seem pretty reasonable given the currant shape of the roster. Another article at the same site looks at the teams most likely to go running back in the first round, and Dallas is mentioned frequently as one of the candidates.
But there are still some serious questions about the value of the 27th pick this year. With the estimates that there are somewhere between about 20 and 25 legitimate first-round talents, the option of trading back looks very attractive. There is a lot of legitimate second-round talent out there, and this is very true for the running backs. Among the names who are seen as falling into this round are Jay Ajayi, Ameer Abdullah, Tevin Coleman, and Duke Johnson, and those are just the four names I have seen mentioned most frequently. Given the current atmosphere of the NFL, where running back has become a devalued position, the odds of having one or more of these prospect available at the 60th pick seem very good. It becomes even more likely if the Cowboys follow their well established penchant for draft trades and move back to gain an additional, earlier second round pick plus whatever it can gain later in the draft.
Of course, there are several good running backs that are almost certain to still be available in the third round, where Dallas currently holds the 91st pick and could also gain an additional pick in a trade back. It's all a matter of how much risk the team is willing to take, and how attractive other players might be earlier in the draft.
The entire exercise is a bit like trying to grab fog, but there does seem to be a certain shape discernible in the mists. The first round looks like it may be a bit too expensive given the relative value of the position, and there is a very good chance that both Gurley and Gordon will be off the boards before the 27th pick anyway. There should be a very good back still available for Dallas in the second, and there almost certainly will be if they trade back. Waiting until the third (or later) runs a risk of having to step down to the next tier of talent, which may be acceptable, given the quality of the Dallas offensive line, but how much quality do you want to sacrifice?
This has been a bit convoluted, but it is nothing compared to how the draft actually unfolds each year. However, there is a good argument to be made that the second round is where the Cowboys would get the best return on their investment of a draft pick in one of the available running backs this year. They get a top five or six player at the position, and possibly higher if they move back from 27. This should be a player who can make the most of the holes those big fellows up front can open, and who Scott Linehan can utilize to keep the running game central to the Dallas attack. It also fits very nicely with the perceived priorities Dallas places on the various positions it has to bring to the team.
This is largely built on a bunch of suggestions and hints, but if you see a running back chosen by Dallas in the second round, remember you read it here first. And if not, this is clear evidence that we are all just grabbing at straws when it comes to predicting the draft.