Prior to free agency, the Dallas Cowboys were down to only two running backs. Darren McFadden had resurrected his career with a 1,000 yard season, one of the very few bright spots in an otherwise dismal offensive performance for the year. Lance Dunbar was recovering from an injury that cut short a very promising start to his season. One other RB, Rod Smith, was being converted to fullback. But after the first week of training camp, an entirely new set of names now top the depth chart - and they look very good indeed.
The Cowboys addressed the position in free agency by signing Alfred Morris, who had seen his production decline steadily over the past few seasons. They made the big move with the fourth pick of the draft in Ezekiel Elliott. They then added something of a surprise selection with one of their sixth-round picks, taking little-known small school back Darius Jackson.
As was expected, Dunbar began camp on PUP as he continues to recover. He is believed to be getting close to returning. So is Darren McFadden, who started on the NFI list after breaking his elbow under what remains somewhat murky circumstances. With those two off the field, the three new additions have not only taken their reps in practice, they are threatening to supplant one or both of the returning backs, depending on how many the staff decides to keep on the 53-man roster.
Elliott came in as the presumptive starter, and he has done nothing to change that expectation. He has missed practice due to a tweaked hamstring, but all indications are that his being held out is mostly due to Jason Garrett’s theory for this year, Proceeding With All Due Deliberateness. Despite missing some time, he has shown the combination of explosiveness, speed, elusiveness, and pass-catching skills that led to him being the team’s first-round pick.
Morris not only came into the camp with a history of declining effectiveness, he also was seen as being only a two-down back due to his poor pass catching skills. However, so far in camp his performance has belied both those beliefs. He has been quick to the hole with a burst of speed that looks much more like player that was so potent earlier in his career. And he has displayed sure hands as a receiver. One plus that he always had was that he was seen as a much better fit for the zone blocking scheme Dallas prefers. So far, he has looked like a more than capable backup for Elliott.
Jackson has been nothing but a completely pleasant surprise. He is even faster than Morris and may be challenge Elliott in that regard. His game also looks to be complete. From the beginning, he was thought to be a good alternative to Dunbar as the change of pace back. But instead of serving more as insurance in case Dunbar did not have a full recovery, he is now challenging for the role outright. All indications are that he can also fill the three-down role as well. That versatility can go a long way when the time comes to make decisions on who gets a job for the fall.
Although the coaches may elect to vary from them, the most likely alternatives for the team are to carry three backs and a fullback (since Garrett has a real love of that FB position) or just go with four backs. Rod Smith has been getting the bulk of the repetitions at fullback (in competition with Keith Smith, who was a linebacker last season), and he is also seeing heavy rotations on special teams. That signals that the coaches may be working to carve him a role. If the Cowboys go with just three running backs, Elliott, Morris, and Jackson have already established a lead. McFadden and Dunbar will have to really come on strong to reclaim a position.
It is not inconceivable that Dallas could have a running back unit composed only of players that are new to the team this year. There is still a lot of practice plus four preseason games to help determine the roster, but that availability thing is definitely working to the advantage of the recent arrivals. The injured pair have to be getting anxious about getting back on the field, and hoping it is not already a bit too late.