It would be easy to assume that any team with three talented tailbacks would not even think about adding another. Such is the case with the Dallas Cowboys, who have spent the last three seasons trying to mesh Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice into some kind of three-headed rushing monster.
But for all the talent in the Dallas backfield, the Cowboys only finished 16th in the league in rushing during the regular season, averaging 111.6 yards per game as a team, a drop of nearly 20 yards per game from the 2009 season.
Does that mean the Cowboys are going to draft a running back in April? Of course not. Barber is signed through 2014, Choice through 2011 and Jones through 2012. But Choice has expressed frustration with his role as the team's third running back, and there are those who question whether Barber can be a consistent No. 1 back (thereby allowing the slippery Jones to be a dynamic change-of-pace alternative). Nonetheless, it might be surprising to some to learn that the Cowboys have done considerable research on a number of running backs, and ranchreport.com has learned of five who have been under the Dallas microscope:
Mark Ingram (Alabama): Contrary to what some are saying, Ingram is not the second coming of Emmitt Smith. Yes, he wears jersey No. 22 and has a similar build, but comparing him to the leading rusher in NFL history is unfair to both. It seems highly unlikely the Cowboys will go with a running back with the ninth pick in the draft, but if they do, the son of the former Giants/Dolphins/Packers/Eagles wideout has to be the guy, as he is considered by many to be the only running back in the draft with first-round talent. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner as a sophomore, Ingram is a strong runner and a decent receiver out of the backfield and pass protector. The 5-10, 215-pound Ingram is productive and durable, insisting that the knee injury that cost him a pair of games at the beginning of the 2010 season is a thing of the past.
Mikel Leshoure (Illinois): Among the most productive backs in Illini history, Leshoure set single-season Illinois records for rushing yards (1,697) and touchdowns (17). At 6 feet and 230 pounds, Leshoure has ample size and strength to take the pounding administered to lead NFL backs. Leshoure has fairly quick feet, but is not an elusive runner; instead, he is the epitome of a north-south runner who is at his best when he puts his head down and blasts through would-be tacklers. For such a thick, burly runner, Leshoure has surprisingly good vision and balance, and while he doesn't have pure sprinter's speed, he has excellent acceleration to his top speed, allowing him to burst through gaps and get to the second or third level of a defense.
Shane Vereen (California): At 5-10 and 204 pounds, Vereen is another in the line of shifty Cal runners (like J.J. Arrington, Jahvid Best, etc.), but runs with more power than his frame would suggest. He's extremely versatile, helping the Bears as a runner, receiver out of the backfield and return specialist on special teams, and despite leaving after his junior season, Vereen already ranks fifth in school history with 4,069 total yards. He has exceptional balance and lateral quickness, allowing him to make defenders miss, but he also is more than willing to run in heavy traffic between the tackles. Although not the largest of backs, Vereen has very strong legs, helping him with the balance and lateral movement, but also with pass protection. Like most backs in Cal coach Jeff Tedford's offense, Vereen is a gifted receiver out of the backfield.
Brandon Saine (Ohio State): One of the harder runners to figure in this year's draft, Saine has ideal measurables (6-1, 220, 4.45), but has never been the featured back for the Buckeyes. Part of a backfield tandem, Saine was a team captain in 2010, but because of the crowd of talent in Columbus, he constantly shared the ball and gained just 1,408 yards in 48 career games. Saine is an able receiver out of the backfield, and is a versatile player who lined up all over the field: at running back, receiver and H-back. Saine likely is not a pure running back in the NFL. Depending on which team picks him, he should get some carries but also will get used as a receiver, where his speed can allow him to shine once he gets in the open field. He also is a valuable asset on special teams.
Matt Asiata (Utah): The 5-11, 220-pound Asiata is a power back whose statistics with the Utes were somewhat modest. He had155 carries for 695 yards, for an average of 4.5 yards per carry, but in Utah's pass-first offense, he did have the team's only performance of more than 100 rushing yards in a game. A likely late-round pick or undrafted free agent, Asiata's strong 2010 campaign was a perfect encore to a 2009 season that was cut short after four games because of a knee injury that required surgery. An able receiver Asiata had 32 catches for 195 receiving yards and a touchdown in 2010.
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