With the draft less than a month away, the Cowboys attention to the running back position moves to the forefront of conversation. This year’s class is projected to be one of the deepest in recent memory, with a double-digit number of prospects thought to be able to immediately step into a ‘lead back’ role. When mixed with Dallas’ mammoth offensive line and its proclivity for creating loading-zone lanes for a back to shimmy through, it’s conceivable Dallas could excel in the run game with several of the candidates.
As with everything draft, opinions differ from one analyst to another as to which backs bring the best balance of positives and negatives to the equation. Here, we’ll gather some of those opinions and have them present their cases for which candidates should be given a closer look and which ones should be passed for greener pastures.
To wit, Dallas has lined up a visit with the majority of the top backs of the class. They will do their own due diligence to identify the best fit for the style of running game they employ the most; the zone-blocking scheme. Over-simplified, the ZBS has offensive linemen moving in unison, either left or right, as if on rails; escorting unwilling defensive lineman to one side or another. This differs from a power scheme where the linemen look to engage the nearest defender and turn them to open lanes. The running back’s job is to flow with the line until he identifies the north-south lane that is created and burst through to the second level of the defense.
We put together a CowboysHQ Roundtable of Dallas Draftniks to discuss their most overrated and underrated backs in this class. They all arrived at completely different conclusions, which further illustrates how difficult the draft process can be. Here are their takes.
Most Overrated Back: Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin The consensus around the NFL Draft community is that Melvin Gordon may very well be the first running back taken in the NFL Draft with the medical questions surrounding Todd Gurley. More often than not you here San Diego as the team tied to Gordon should they stay right where they are with pick 17. The Chargers are likely to go running back at some point with Ryan Mathews leaving for the Eagles. Taking Gordon this early feels like a quarterback-esque overdraft that is so often done with the most valuable position in the NFL. The Wisconsin running back lives outside the tackles to make his impact. He has limited vision inside and too often runs into his own linemen much like a former Dallas Cowboys running back. He benefited largely from gaping holes that he would also receive here in Dallas. Gordon isn't a back that is very decisive with making a one cut decision. When the offensive line can't hold their blocks, Gordon will look to bust it outside showing very little patience. In the system that the Cowboys utilize a running back needs to multifaceted. Being a good runner is one thing but blocking and pass catching are just as vitally important to this offense. Gordon wouldn't be a running back that I would want on the field for all three downs. His pass catching is very limited only accumulating 22 career receptions with 19 of those coming this past season. In six of the games during the 2014 campaign he had no impact on the passing game. Tony Romo relies on his running backs to be a factor and that couldn't have been more evident this season with Murray's 57 receptions. That was third best behind only Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. The other question mark with Gordon is his blocking. On most occasions he would only throw a shoulder into an oncoming blitzer or pass rusher. At the next level he wouldn't have much of an impact on protecting Romo. Without showing the ability to sustain blocks the Cowboys shouldn't be willing to gamble on him early with their soon to be 35 year old quarterback. For these reasons Gordon is the 4th best running back in this class and not one of the top two. Most Underrated Back: David Cobb, Minnesota David Cobb makes my list as one of the more underrated backs in the NFL Draft. He comes in as the number 10 back on CBS and NFL.com’s Lance Zerlein has him as the ninth best back. He comes in as my number five back overall. Cobb has many traits that you will like. He is a physical, punishing runner who thrives after contact. In 2014 Cobb had 878 of his 1,626 yards come after contact. He has good lower body strength which makes it difficult to arm tackle and has great foot quickness for a 230 pound back. Cobb is a downhill runner who lacks the lateral quickness to bust a run outside. He will compliment Darren McFadden well but also has the skillset to be a focal point of the offense in the future. Cobb’s blocking ability is much improved from his junior season. He shows no hesitation in taking on blocks but at times Cobb can look lost on blocking assignments. That can be easily corrected with proper coaching. You can also rely on him in the passing game even though Minnesota used him sparingly. He was still able to average 10+ yards per reception. Most fans won’t be happy with his 4.81 40 time that he ran. However that was due to a quad injury. Cobb is more of a 4.6-4.65 40 running back. The Texas native would do well back in his home state representing America’s Team.
Most Overrated Back: Tevin Coleman, Indiana This comes with a disclaimer because if he ends up on the Cowboys I think he's going to be very successful, BUT: I think Tevin Coleman is a one trick pony as a runner. At Indiana they loved to give him the short toss and get him running sideways, let him wait to pick his hole, put a foot in the ground and explode. And he does it really well. That fits in Dallas. You zone block it, you block it up for him and you let him get through there with authority. I don't think he fits everywhere. I see a guy that isn't as powerful as some of the other backs in this class. I see a guy that doesn't push the pile forward, he's not real hard to tackle, and he's not evasive in the open field. You have to find a place where he "fits" with what you are doing. He won't do much on his own.
Most Underrated Back: Mike Davis, South Carolina I don't hear anyone putting Davis in the group of guys in the mix for the 2nd and 3rd round at RB. I think he belongs squarely in the group of Gordon/Ajayi/Johnson/Abdullah/Coleman etc. There are two things that he has that I think a lot of other guys in the class don't. 1) He has great RB feet. By that I mean when you're in small spaces and you need to make someone miss, can you do it naturally without losing momentum? Davis can do the very subtle changes of direction/shoulder lean/hop steps without losing speed. 2) He finishes runs. There aren't a lot of pile pushers in this draft class. When you tackle Mike Davis you're going to earn your tackle and you're going to feel it. I also like some of what I've seen in pass pro. He's packed in there tight at 5'9 and 217, and he has the ability to square up some of the big boys blitzing and stonewall them.
( Jeff Cavanaugh is part of "G-Bag Nation,'' middays on The Cowboys Station 105.3 The Fan.)
Most Overrated: Jay Ajayi, Boise St There has been a lot of praise tossed Jay Ajayi’s way as the draft process has worn on, and while some of that praise is warranted, he has one distinct trait that causes me to push him significantly down my RB board. That trait is his eagerness to bounce outside on his runs if it’s not blocked cleanly. If his offensive line was strong at the point of attack and opened a clear lane for him immediately he did a good enough job of running north south through the hole, and can be a difficult guy to tackle when he gets up to speed. However, if the defensive front is able to hold up and keep their gap integrity he doesn’t have the patience to wait for or vision to see the hole and get dirty yards. Instead his first instinct is to attempt to bounce outside and try to run around the corner, and while he had some decent runs with this method at Boise, he doesn’t have the speed or lateral quickness to out run NFL defenders in inside out pursuit, and will be corralled for negative yardage often if he doesn’t overcome this trait. Most Underrated: Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska As much hype as Ameer Abdullah received during the 2014 NCAA football season due to some of the huge numbers he put up in a couple of games, a lot of draft analysts immediately slid him into the niche of a change of pace back destined to be a reserve player. However, coming to the combine at 205lbs was a huge deal for Abdullah, especially when he was able to test well. Weighing in at 205 at 5’9” in height gave him a density (weight/height in inches) of 2.97, which is comparable to guys like Jay Ajayi (3.08), Todd Gurley (3.06), Melvin Gordon (2.96), and Tevin Coleman (2.90) who are seen as lead backs. In addition to this, the game in which most people would say he performed the poorest, was the most impressive to me. Against Michigan State in 2014, Abdullah had 24 carries for 45 yards (1.9 ypc). His front was getting dominated up front by the Spartans, and there were no lanes to run through, but his coaches were not afraid to give it to him when they needed a yard or two, and he converted every single short yardage run he had, including two TDs inside the 2 yard line. He averaged over 20 carries a game, and even carried it 35 times against Miami. In my mind, he is an every down back who is capable of doing things in space that will scare defensive coordinators.
When Dallas allowed DeMarco Murray to test the free agency waters, it was apparent a succession plan of some sort was in place. For over a year, savvy on-loookers knew that even before Murray’s Offensive Player of the Year performance, it was going to be foolish to spend big money on a tailback with his history. For one, age is rarely kind to running backs and Murray entered the league with years and tread on his tires. Performance falls off a cliff after a back turns 27. In addition, Murray has a long injury history that dates back to during his college years at Oklahoma. The cherry on top was his ridiculous 2014 workload when Dallas gave him 449 touches on the season; an obscene number.
A monkey wrench was thrown into Dallas’ succession plans when during the season Joseph Randle was arrested for shoplifting items he could pay for with one professional carry. Then, he was cited for marijuana possession as part of a domestic violence investigation that is still on going in Wichita, Kansas. Randle is still on the team, but Cowboys HQ has learned that there is simply no way the organization is entrusting the lead back role to Randle.
Ryan Williams washed out in Arizona, but spent last season on Dallas’ practice squad and turned down multiple offers from other clubs to join their 53 man roster, citing his desire to have a chance to run behind Dallas’ stalwart line. He’ll get his shot as well.
The club signed Darren McFadden to a two-year prove it deal; but he seems to be more in the mold of competition for Joseph Randle than an answer for the lead back position. His 3.3 yards per carry over the last three years in Oakland indicate he shouldn’t be looked at as any kind of savior. Lance Dunbar, Dallas’ change of pace back, was tendered an offer as a restricted free agent.
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