(Editor's Note: With NFL free agency in its second month and the draft just over two weeks away, the DallasCowboys.com staff is analyzing each position on the Cowboys' roster -- what we know and what still needs to be determined. Today, we start the 11-part series with running back.)
IRVING, Texas – The Cowboys entered training camp last summer with a projected three-man running back committee. By the end of 2015, the original rotation was unrecognizable.
Lance Dunbar landed on season-ending injured reserve in October. Joseph Randle got released a month later.
Darren McFadden became the featured back over the final 11 games, and entering the 2016 season he'll have at least one new teammate in the backfield: free agent addition Alfred Morris. The Cowboys could look to add another running back through the draft, too. Either way, they've already taken steps to solidify a group that endured multiple setbacks last year.
Here's a breakdown of the running back position as it stands here in mid-April:
What We Know:The original plan might not have called for nearly 20 carries per game, but that's what McFadden accepted and delivered after Randle's early-November release. The eight-year veteran had 37 carries in the first five games as Randle's backup, but his total jumped to 202 over the final 11 games (18.3 average). He had four games of 20-plus carries, and his 239 total carries were the most of his career. He also enjoyed his highest rushing total (1,089 yards) since gaining 1,157 with the Raiders in 2010. The Cowboys badly needed stability in the backfield, and McFadden provided just that.
Still Need To Know:Will McFadden have the same heavy workload in 2016? Team owner/general manager Jerry Jones has indicated as much even with the Morris signing, pointing out McFadden's rise in production and offensive rhythm with more carries. Indeed, he averaged 2.5 yards with limited touches in those first five games and averaged 4.9 yards over the final 11. But entering his age-29 season, the Cowboys likely will try to keep him fresh over the course of a full season using multiple backs behind the offensive line's strong blocking.
What We Know:Morris is a tough, durable back, as the Cowboys have witnessed over the last four seasons. Morris totaled 710 rushing yards for the Redskins in eight career games against Dallas. Now the 27-year-old has joined the division-rival Cowboys on a two-year deal.
Still Need To Know: How will he fit in the offense? Here in April, with OTAs and minicamp several more weeks away, it's hard to know for sure. Speaking at the NFL Annual Meeting last month, Jones envisioned a "substantive" role for Morris with fewer carries than McFadden. There's a bit of a parallel between the two backs: both saw their numbers dip before coming to Dallas. Morris' carries, yards and touchdowns have dropped each year since his 2012 rookie season (2012: 335 carries for 1,613 yards, 10 touchdowns; 2015: 202 carries for 751 yards, one touchdown). "I think there are just so many different circumstances when you look at a guy like Alfred and at the running back position," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. "Certainly it's the offensive line factors into it, the emphasis on the running game, other guys who are also getting touches – so you want to look at the whole picture before you make the evaluation. What we've seen from him is a productive back when given an opportunity, does a really good job for the team. He's one of those guys that continues to move the chains, do good things." McFadden, of course, enjoyed a nice rebound season in 2015 behind one of the league's most accomplished offensive lines. The same could happen for Morris in 2016.
What We Know:When healthy, Dunbar presents a different dimension to the offense. Lining up in the backfield or out wide, he led the Cowboys in receptions (21) before injuring his ACL and patellar in the fifth game of the 2015 season. The Cowboys re-signed him to a one-year deal in late March knowing exactly how he can contribute to their system when he's 100 percent.
Still Need To Know:When will Dunbar be 100 percent? The Cowboys aren't committing to a firm timetable for his 2016 return. It could be sometime in training camp or sometime later in the season if he starts out on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. That's one reason running back can't be ruled out in the draft.
Others to Watch
Rod Smith: The Cowboys claimed Smith (6-3, 226) off waivers from Seattle in October after Dunbar got injured. Primarily a special teams contributor, Smith played only 21 offensive snaps in 2015, catching one pass for six yards. He has two career carries, both with the Seahawks before coming to Dallas, but the Cowboys liked his approach in 10 games with the team.
Ben Malena: The Cowboys signed Malena to their Reserve/Future list after the season. A mid-training camp addition in August, he was released at final cuts in September but re-signed to the practice squad in December.