One of the more disappointing aspects of this year's offseason has been the slow pace at which the running backs position battle has played out.. Of course, part of it is due to injuries and part of it is due to the training and coaching staff that kept players out of practices and even preseason games. Yet, even when they were put in, the offense would be missing other key players such as Zack Martin, Doug Free and even Tyron Smith at times. So in essence, we really haven't been able to get a grasp on what the Cowboys have at the position or what to expect heading into the opener this coming Sunday. Let's review the current guys on the roster.
Joseph Randle 6'0 198lbs
The Randle camp has grown over the course of the offseason but the preseason hasn't offered up much confidence in his ability to be the guy. Randle says all the right things and would surely love to be named the starter for this team going forward, yet the Cowboys appear reluctant to name him the lead guy. Part of that stems from his inability to step up his pass blocking. Randle does have the one-cut style with impeccable vision, but part of being the lead back is getting your blocking assignments down pat. Randle has not met the coaches wish for him to square up against the defender and was often blown up by Barry Church in practice. He's been willing to learn but has not been consistent in getting in position to lay a hit on a blitzer.
The coaching staff can come up with plenty of ways to get him involved and Randle has tremendous skill when he does get his opportunities as a runner. He will likely get the nod against the New York Giants, but before the staff can feel good about him, he must learn his blocking assignments or it can result in getting the quarterback killed. That is something that the coaches can not afford to happen. Randle has not been able to separate himself from McFadden, who has a leg-up in blitz-pickup, therefore the jury is still out.
Darren McFadden 6'2 210 lbs
Any Razorbacks fan, including the ownership of this team, would love nothing more than the proverbial 'I told you so' that would follow if McFadden were to put up an outstanding year. Stephen Jones has spoke numerous times about how hard it is to judge a player who came from Oakland, but his other teammates like Latavius Murray had no troubles posting a five yard average per carry. McFadden has been in bubble wrap practically all offseason long, but when he got his shot in the dress rehearsal against the Vikings, it would be a lie to say he didn't impress.
Though his first try against the 49ers was abysmal, on four carries against Minnesota, McFadden averaged 9.3 yards a carry. Not putting too much into that performance, it felt good to see he had some juice. However, that's never been the problem. McFadden has always been a case of something here, something there. His litany of injuries over the years have really marred his career. He finally gets a new shot to realize his potential with perhaps the best offensive line in football.
If McFadden can find success in Dallas, it will be a huge plus for the Cowboys. Everyone knows that if there is a hole and McFadden hits it, he can take it to the house on any try. He's also an established pass blocker and looks like the most complete back on the roster. There is a lot to root for, but McFadden has to show he can grab the opportunity and run with it.
Christine Michael 5'10 221 lbs
Michael is a different type of player than the other backs on this roster. The Cowboys are unsure of what he will be yet, but the athleticism is there. Michael was a second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks who got caught in a numbers game. With Marshawn Lynch under contract, the signing of Fred Jackson, mop-up man Robert Turbin on the roster (albeit on IR for now), and a promising Thomas Rawls waiting in the wings, Michael was a casualty with value. Like any smart team, the Seahawks didn't want to just let him go, so they traded him to Dallas for a conditional seventh-round pick. Not a bad deal for the Cowboys, who are looking for the next guy to step up and pound the rock.
Pounding the rock is just what Christine Michael can do. At Texas A&M, Michael was outstanding when healthy. Though his senior year was overshadowed by the Johnny Manziel-hype train, everyone including the draft experts knew that Michael could perform at the next level. When you are behind a perennial All-Pro like Lynch, it can be hard to get the opportunities. Michael has also had some minor off the field issues and needs to work on his maturity.
However, Michael gives the Cowboys a powerful runner that they lost in DeMarco Murray. Jason Garrett always spoke of Murray's ability to get 'dirty yards' and convert third and fourth downs. That's exactly what the Cowboys need and Christine Michael has the frame and bulk to be that type of bruiser. This early in the game, the Cowboys want for him to get a grasp of their scheme and how they like to run the football in Dallas. If he's the right man for the job, then the rest will take care of itself.
Lance Dunbar 5'8 191lbs
This is the more difficult player to judge because it seems every year we are hearing about what Dunbar is going to do. The coaching staff obviously loves him to death and he probably has the safest spot in the stable. Dunbar certainly has a skill-set that is intriguing and dangerous if it works out as advertised, but that's just it. Where are these opportunities going to come from? Dunbar has basically been a third-down option in the screen game due to his elusiveness and quickness but he's not exactly someone defenses lose sleep over.
Like Gavin Escobar, it's hard to really find a role for Dunbar though he's a pretty solid player. You could use him in the return game perhaps but his small frame and ball security issues could be a concern. He's not going to cause you to take other big name players out of the game and doesn't exactly have special packages for him either.
Dunbar has looked good in training camp but only turned that into seven snaps in the preseason. He was dealing with some minor injuries throughout and the coaches thought it best to keep him out of too much contact. Dunbar is a change of pace runner that can have some value in multiple parts of the game, but it's just too hard to get him on the field. There is a ton of promise but very little production, hopefully they can find a way to keep him in the shuffle this season.
So what gives? Will the Cowboys truly rely on the running-back-by-committee approach or will one these four emerge as the go-to guy with the others cleaning up behind him? The Cowboys still have this question hanging over their heads but you won't know until you try. With how important the running game was to the team's success last season, the need to find a solution to keep the train on track is equally imperative.