IRVING, Texas – With about five weeks before the team departs for training camp in Oxnard, Calif., there are plenty of positions up for grabs. In fact, that's the point of training camp, to battle it out on the field and see which players force themselves to stick around.
One of the positions that seems rather intriguing here in June is the running back spot. The Cowboys obviously addressed the top of the depth chart by drafting Ezekiel Elliott, but also made a smaller splash in free agency by taking Alfred Morris, a two-time Pro Bowler.
Don't forget Darren McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing last year, but just recently had elbow surgery. Lance Dunbar is coming back from a knee injury that wiped out most of his 2015 season and sixth-round pick Darius Jackson was picked for a reason, likely giving the team more young legs with an ability to play special teams.
Something likely has to give, especially if the Cowboys plan to keep three quarterbacks this year.
So the writers of DallasCowboys.com have weighed in, trying to figure out who they think will be the odd man out at running back.
David Helman:At this point I'm going to sound like a broken record, but I'm awfully curious about McFadden's role on this team going forward. Of the three main candidates for the lead role – him, Morris and Elliott – McFadden is the oldest and the most prone to injury. He's already going to start his 2016 season behind the 8-ball, since his recent elbow surgery will likely sideline him for a large part of training camp. If we're assuming that Elliott is going to be the lead back in this offense, then McFadden also doesn't play enough of a role on special teams to be a backup. Guys like Lance Dunbar and Darius Jackson are far more likely to play a variety of roles as kick or punt coverage players, not to mention possible return men. None of this is to say Darren McFadden isn't a good player, it's just hard to find a role for him here. For that reason, I'd try to deal him before the start of the season – in the same manner Seattle dealt Christine Michael to Dallas just last year.[embeddedad0]
Rob Phillips: Sure, the Cowboys signed Morris in March without knowing they'd draft Elliott, now generally considered the likely starter. And yes, McFadden presumably won't return from his broken elbow until sometime in training camp. But at this point it's still hard for me to envision Darius Jackson taking a roster spot from two veterans with over 130 combined starts and 10,000 combined career rushing yards. It's possible Lance Dunbar begins the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list coming off last year's knee injury, and that would open up an extra roster spot for a few weeks during the season. In any case, this much running back depth is a good problem to have and it's a major upgrade from 2015. The Cowboys like Jackson's potential, but I still think it's an uphill climb for the sixth-round pick.
Bryan Broaddus: There has been a lot of focus on these running backs and who might be the odd man out when they cut to 53? This is nothing more than a wild guess but I am going to say that if he doesn't go on the physically unable to perform list – Lance Dunbar would be that guy for me. I understand Dunbar is a core special teamer but during his four-year career, he has only played in 36 games. The minute you want to rely on him – he winds up on the injured reserve. Releasing him would only cost the club $100,000 in dead money with a cap savings of $887,500. I believe that there are others that could handle his responsibilities on special teams like a Darius Jackson but could also be an option as a full time running back.
Nick Eatman: I'm just not sure how Alfred Morris is going to fit in this plan. I understand why they signed him in March. That's how you cover your bases in free agency, not knowing what would happen in the draft. But not Elliott is the primary runner in this equation, keeping Morris doesn't make a ton of sense. He's not a three-down back, something he even admits. He needs to improve his blocking and pass-catching ability. Maybe I'm not giving him enough credit for what he's done in four years with the Redskins, which is produce three 1,000-yard seasons and make a couple of Pro Bowls. I'm sure he's a better runner than I remember, but I just don't see where he's a better option than anything they've got. Zeke is better as a complete back. McFadden will be better on third downs and Dunbar, when healthy, can be a better receiving threat. And I'm saying it right now – Darius Jackson will lead the team in rushing during the preseason – by far – and will probably do enough things to stick around. So I think Morris is the odd man out, although it will be sad for me. Personally, I liked him a lot in my interview with him this summer. He seems like a really great guy who has the right approach and mindset. I hope I'm wrong but I just don't see where he's going to fit, assuming they all stay healthy.