IRVING, Texas – The era of developing NFL rookies over a number of years seems to be all but over, having disappeared beneath increased calls for immediate playing time.
Nowhere is this more the case than the running back position, where the ability to plug-and-play has produced first-year contributors not just from first-round talents, but from all across the draft board.
Houston running back Arian Foster would undoubtedly be the poster boy for that school of thought. Foster rose from undrafted free agency to be one of the most productive ball carriers of this decade, with 4,500 yards and 50 touchdowns on the ground in three Pro Bowl seasons.
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That doesn’t put any limits on his expected production, based on the Cowboys’ post-draft thoughts on their new ball carrier.
“This guy right here, somebody asked the starter question earlier,” said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. “You can make a big case in this day and time that your second running back is going to take snaps, and be a part like coach described here, out of the backfield, blocking, all the things we think he mirrors relative to [DeMarco] Murray. We put starter out beside him.”
Of course, it’s one thing to expect that of a rookie and another to have him deliver – especially if Murray bounces back from his injury-plagued 2012. But there has been plenty of precedent set by rookie running backs in recent NFL season, even those taken toward the tail end of the draft.
- Alfred Morris, Washington Redskins, 6th round – It’s almost unfair to use Morris as a comparison. Firstly, because he had the dual-threat abilities of Robert Griffin III keeping defenses honest, and secondly, because of Washington coach Mike Shanahan’s more than a decade of experience in turning mid-level running backs into all-stars. The fact remains the same, though: Morris redefined what’s possible for a rookie running back with 1,613 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns in his first year. He set Washington’s single-season rushing mark and was named a second-team All-Pro. Cowboys fans probably don’t want or need any reminders of this, as Morris tallied 313 combined yards and three touchdowns in the Redskins’ regular season sweep of Dallas.
- Bryce Brown, Philadelphia Eagles, 7th round – Another division rival, but a much more manageable resume to live up to. Brown didn’t exactly light the world on fire, especially as he had problems holding onto the ball, but he made the most of a prime opportunity by racking up 423 rushing yards over the final six weeks of the season. Brown finished with more than 500 yards on the year after being drafted as an afterthought.
- Vick Ballard, Indianapolis Colts, 5th round – Ballard rose to the top of an uninspiring backfield to compliment Andrew Luck in both players’ first year in the league. The Mississippi State product only averaged 3.9 yards per carry, and his touchdown total finished at just two. But he still managed 811 yards on the year, and he didn’t lose a fumble despite appearing in 16 regular season games as well as the Colts’ wildcard playoff loss.
- Kendall Hunter, San Francisco 49ers, 4th round – It’s tough sledding getting consistent touches behind the likes of Frank Gore in San Francisco’s prolific run game. But Hunter was actually more productive as a rookie in 2011 than in 2012. Randle’s Oklahoma State teammate might work as a strong comparison, assuming Murray can handle a big workload with no injury problems. Hunter got less than half of Gore’s carry total in 2011, but he still finished behind the workhorse with a solid 473 yards compared to Gore’s 1,211. If the Cowboys can get production like that from Murray, with Randle working as an effective reliever, they’d be plenty pleased.