Cowboys OTA Preview: We Open With Eyes On RBs

IRVING - The Cowboys are launching into this week's three-day OTA at Valley Ranch today with the departure of DeMarco Murray a continuing cause célèbre. The first crack at calming the panic belongs to Joseph Randle - and some observations that suggest he might be up to the task.



Cowboys OTA Opens

After a busy offseason and an exciting draft that has Tony Romo raving about the front office, the Dallas Cowboys launch into this week's three-day OTA at Valley Ranch having given themselves more overall depth than they've had in recent memory. However, that's not to say that they don't still have a few question marks that need to be addressed.

Among those:

*Sean Lee's healthy return to the same practice field that at this time a year ago saw him go down to a fluke knee injury that cost the potential star his entire season. Dallas employs lots of linebackers right now. But a healthy Lee and a happy Ro McClain ... that's mostly what matters.

*Dustin Vaughan making a legit bid to be a No. 2 QB, competing with Weeden behind Romo.

*The coming together of a defensive backfield now featuring rookie Byron Jones and maybe, sooner than expected (not this week but sooner nevertheless) Mo Claiborne, with a recovery from knee surgery we're told is going well.

*A survey of who lines up where along the defensive front, where Greg Hardy has been a workout terror, where Tyrone Crawford is coming off a breakout season, where Demarcus Lawrence may be approaching one, where rookie Randy Gregory might be a steal ... and where these guys' versatility provides C-coordinator Rod Marinelli with lots of toys.

*A step-up from Terrance Williams and Devin Street, part of the receiving corps that will be featured while Dez Bryant likely stays away during franchise-tag contract negotiations.

*A study of the kids in the offensive line. Right tackle Doug Free is likely still recovering from minor foot surgery. So does La'el Collins give it a go there or is he a guard? Is young vet Weems in this picture? Is another rookie, third-rounder Chaz Green, best-suited to try the spot first?

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*The biggest question mark, though, is the running back position.

The departure of DeMarco Murray has made the issue of replacing him a cause célèbre. Consider the angles, some of them bogus ...

*There have been rumors for over a year now that the Cowboys would pursue Adrian Peterson, although has CowboysHQ has reported all along, Jerry's lieutenants did their best to shut that down some time ago. (Nevertheless, AD keeps making that noise -- noise we believe is more about financial dissatisfaction than anything else.)

*There was the sincere desire to have a top running backs fall to the Cowboys in the draft, and when that didn't happen, fans (and media?) started to get a little more worried.

*There was last week's tryout, seemingly completely misunderstood by Cowboys followers who failed to dig into Fish's Cowboys Premium story on what really happened in that workout as it regarded Ben Tate, Felix Jones and Daniel Thomas.

*There are the "Fibs and Rumors'' about the situation, explaining the very legit possibility that Dallas pushes towards a "contingency idea'' (a trade for a runner, say Miami's Lamar Miller) if the present stable fails.

Clearly the Cowboys feel some level of comfortable with their current group of runners, even if outsiders don't share that same level of confidence. While I would've loved to grab a Tevin Coleman or Duke Johnson in the draft, and while someone like Miller might be inviting -- and heck, it'd be a blast to see AD run behind this group of blockers doing its best to downplay the "Best O-Line Ever'' stuff -- I believe that the Cowboys have a running back on the roster who is a fitting replacement for DeMarco Murray.

I'm talking about Joseph Randle.

I think that Darren McFadden and Ryan Williams are both very capable running backs and either could potentially win the starting job, but I believe that Randle is best suited for it. Randle has had a difficult time staying out of trouble throughout the first two years of his NFL career. However, if he can get his head on straight, Randle could potentially push toward the level of success behind this offensive line as DeMarco had. Some fans might take issue with that, but let me explain my frame of thought.

First off, let's take a look at Murray and Randle stats from their last two years in college.

DeMarco Murray
Rushing Attempts: 453
Rushing Yards: 1,919
Yards Per Attempt: 4.2
Rushing Touchdowns: 23

Joseph Randle
Rushing Attempts: 482
Rushing Yards: 2,633
Yards Per Attempt: 5.5
Rushing Touchdowns: 38

Randle had 29 more rushing attempts than Murray and averaged 1.3 more yards per attempt. He also had 714 more rushing yards and 15 more rushing touchdowns. Does college success always translate into the pros? No, but the pedigree comparison works.

Now let's take a look at some of Randle and Murray NFL stats.

Murray had a historic season last year, breaking numerous team and league records. Still, Randle made quite a few plays in his limited opportunities as well. One thing I can point to is Murray's 4.7 yards per carry compared to Randle's 6.7 yards per carry. That's quite a gap. However, Murray had almost eight times as many rushing attempts as Randle, so those numbers are a bit skewed. If Randle had Murray's 392 rushing attempts in 2014, it's probably a safe bet that his YPC would have been lower. Still, it's an impressive number. Here are some more interesting stats from 2014:

*DeMarco Murray averaged 6.1 yards per rushing TD in 2014. Joseph Randle averaged 40.6 yards per rushing TD in 2014. Home-run threat?

*DeMarco Murray averaged one touchdown every 30 carries in 2014. Joseph Randle averaged one touchdown every 17 carries in 2014. According to his average, Randle would've scored 23 touchdowns if he had carried the ball as many times as Murray. (Again, skewed numbers ... but still fun to toy with!)

*DeMarco Murray broke away for 15+ yards on 34.1 percent of his carries. Joseph Randle broke away for 15+ yards on 46.5 percent of his carries. (I find this significant.)

*DeMarco Murray averaged 2.5 yards after contact per carry. Joseph Randle averaged 4.2 yards after contact per carry. (I find this very significant.)

*DeMarco Murray had PFF's 35th best elusive rating among all RB's. Joseph Randle had PFF's 10th best elusive rating among all RB's.

*Murray gave up three sacks and five QB hurries on 71 pass block snaps. His three sacks were tied for the second most among all RB's in the NFL in 2014. Joseph Randle pass-blocked on 13 snaps, giving up zero sacks, zero QB hits and zero QB hurries. He was the only Cowboys RB to not allow a single QB pressure last year. (You want to see lots more data here. But it's a start.)

Some of Randle's stats are inflated due to limited carries and situational carries. However, a player's vision isn't affected by the number of carries he gets. Randle doesn't dance around in the backfield. He gets the ball and immediately recognizes where the biggest lane is and he hits it quickly. Once he gets in the open field, Randle has good awareness and is able to read his blocks and make the most of them. Randle is also probably faster than Murray.

Murray was phenomenal during his time in Dallas, especially in 2014. But even during last year, we said at the time that sometimes DeMarco left too many yards on the field. DeMarco was trustworthy, reliable, tough and football-smart. But he wasn't perfect.

Some Randle-doubters will ask, "But is he capable of being a three-down back?" or "Who is going to get the dirty yards?" It's worth noting that in 2013 and 2014, fans were asking whether Murray could be a three-down back as well. Once they Cowboys added Zack Martin and an offensive coordinator committed to running the football, Murray flourished and had the best season of his career. Can another added first-round-talent blocker and Randle's traits as scheme fit give him a chance of success in 2015?

Of course, all of this hinges on whether Randle can stay out of trouble and leave his knuckleheaded ways behind. That very thing is what Murray has over Randle; he developed a deep bond with Romo and Witten and many others ... in part because they found him to be a reliable teammate (and then a worthy friend.) At this point, CHQ understands the team simply lacks trust in Randle, but that doesn't mean he won't be able to re-gain their faith before the start of the season.

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The Cowboys originally drafted Randle for this very reason - to be DeMarco Murray's eventual replacement. That process, along with the gathering of trust, begins today at OTAs.



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