IRVING, Texas -The 2008 NFL Draft might have been the last great running back heavy draft. It was loaded with talented rushers. The draft has already produced one 6,000-yard rusher, one 5,000-yard rusher, two 4,000-yard rushers and another player who has already rushed for 41 touchdowns.
The Cowboys and Steelers had back-to-back first-round picks in that draft and both selected running backs. Unfortunately for them, neither selected any of the five running backs mentioned above.
With the 22nd pick Cowboys chose Felix Jones out of Arkansas and with the very next pick the Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall out of Illinois. They were the third and fourth running backs selected in the draft after Oakland took Darren McFadden with the fourth overall choice and Carolina grabbed Jonathan Stewart with the 13th overall pick.
Many people claim that the Cowboys selected Jones based on Jerry Jones' connection to the University of Arkansas, but the fact is that Felix Jones and Mendenhall were projected by most people to be the next two running backs selected after McFadden and Stewart. Plus, Felix Jones was the first Arkansas player ever drafted by Jerry Jones, a former Razorback player himself.
But ironically, it was the four running backs selected after Dallas and Pittsburgh made their selections who turned out to be Pro Bowl rushers. After Jones and Mendenhall were taken off of the board the Tennessee Titans drafted the much less-hyped Chris Johnson out of East Carolina. Statistically, Johnson might be the most productive player at any position to have come out of the draft as he has already rushed for over 6,000 yards and 42 touchdowns.
But the draft's running back depth does not end in the first round. In the second round, the Chicago Bears selected Matt Forte, a 4,000-yard rusher with almost 2,000 receiving yards as well. Then later in the second round, the Baltimore Ravens selected Ray Rice, an all-purpose back with 5,000 yards rushing who seems to be entering his prime.
In the third round, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Jamaal Charles, who has already rushed for over 4,000 yards despite missing nearly a full season in 2011.
It's easy to play the "coulda-woulda-shoulda" game when you look at the success of the four Pro Bowl backs selected later in the draft, but the truth is the Cowboys were choosing between Jones and Mendenhall, and at the time, most of the people criticizing Dallas' selection suggested they pick Mendenhall.
I don't think either the Cowboys or Steelers would consider their first round selections to be busts. They may have not reached Pro Bowls, but both have been productive for spurts in their careers.
Objectively speaking, Mendenhall has been considerably more productive than Jones during the three middle seasons of his career. Neither was much of a factor in their rookie campaigns as Jones only played six games and Mendenhall just four.
But over the next three years of their careers, Mendenhall was a much more efficient player, rushing for over 1,000 yards in two of those season and 928 in the other year. The Steelers also won a Super Bowl in that time period with Mendenhall as their primary running back.
Jones most productive season came in 2010, when he rushed for 800 yards. Jones has just over 3,700 all-purpose yards for his career and 14 total touchdowns. Mendenhall has just over 4,000 all-purpose yards for his career and 31 total touchdowns.
But injuries have hampered the career of both players. Jones has played 61 games in his nearly five seasons and Mendenhall has played 55.
Unfortunately, both players' careers are currently heading in the wrong direction. Jones has held a very small role in the Cowboys' offense this season, even when DeMarco Murray was out for six weeks due to injury. Mendenhall has been a non-factor for the Steelers this year as he has suffered multiple injuries. Now healthy, he was suspended from the game against the Cowboys due to "conduct detrimental to the team."
Both players will be free agents at the end of the season and their futures in Pittsburgh and Dallas are anything but guaranteed.
So the two running backs drafted 22nd and 23rd in one of the best running back drafts in recent memory will likely have very little impact on the upcoming game between the two teams that drafted them.
The player from the 2008 draft that might have the biggest impact on the game is perhaps Brandon Carr who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the fifth round. Carr had an interception in the Cowboys' last game against Cincinnati.
Dan Connor was also selected in the third round of the 2008 draft and will likely start in the game. Mackenzy Bernadeau, who will start at offensive line for the Cowboys, was the third to last pick in the entire 2008 draft.