Normally, NFL players do not make the roster during OTAs and minicamp. They can lose out on a spot due to injury, as we saw happen a couple of years ago when Sean Lee went on IR the first day of the voluntary practices. While injuries can drop a player’s chances, they do not often make a downroster player a near-lock to make the squad. But the bizarre broken elbow suffered by Darren McFadden may have made just that out of sixth- round rookie running back Darius Jackson.
While McFadden is expected to be back sometime during training camp, he may miss out on the early practices in Oxnard while he recovers from surgery. And at the moment, the Cowboys have only three healthy running backs in minicamp, Jackson, presumptive starter Ezekiel Elliott, and Alfred Morris. The only other running back, outside of Rod Smith who is working at converting to fullback, is change-of-pace back Lance Dunbar, whose status to start camp is also in question as he recovers from his own injury.
Suddenly, Jackson has a tremendous opportunity. He has already had some plays in the practices so far that indicate that he is capable both in the every down role and being used the way Dunbar is. He has good speed and seems to have the vision needed to use it effectively. Given that Dallas may need four backs (not counting the fullback) to get through the season with their run-focused offensive plan, Jackson is now a valuable commodity for the team. It is a heady position for a late-round supplemental pick from a small school.
There has always been a perception that Jackson was a better fit for the preferred zone blocking approach of the Cowboys, and now he has the minicamp and however long it may take McFadden and/or Dunbar to come back in Oxnard to solidify that. There is still a real possibility that Dunbar could wind up on PUP to begin the season, which may make Jackson the logical man to take his job if he can continue to demonstrate good ability catching the ball and working in space. And if Jackson can get a firm hold on the third back position during any time missed by McFadden, he may become just too hard to displace.
You never really want to see a player ascend at the cost of another being hurt, but that is the way La’el Collins became a starter, filling in for Ron Leary during the games Leary was out after his injury. It is an unfortunate part of the game. Still, it is arguable that Jackson can provide a younger, harder-running alternative to McFadden, which would benefit the Cowboys in the long run. Additionally, the contract situation works in his favor, with McFadden and Dunbar on the last year of their deals and Morris having just been signed for two years. Jackson’s four-year contract is dirt cheap because of his draft position. If he proves to be a capable backup, the team has to think twice about the risk of trying to get him to the practice squad no matter how fast Dunbar and McFadden recover. Dallas pays a lot of attention to the cap, and getting such a bargain (assuming he continues to play well) would bring a smile to Stephen Jones’ face.
As always, he is still going to have to prove himself on the field, especially in the preseason games. But the odds have now shifted dramatically in his favor. Everyone knew that the Cowboys had drafted their starting running back of the future when Elliott was taken four picks into the first round. Now it looks like they just may have gotten his backup deep in the sixth, as well.
If you've never seen his work in college, here is a highlight video of his 2015 season at Eastern Michigan.