Who Will it be in the Backfield?

Emmitt Smith said Thursday he can still be a featured running back in the NFL. Now, he must find a team that believes him. Smith, whose 13-year career with the Cowboys ended Thursday, will enter the free-agent market for the first time and will be one of the biggest names available.

"This is a new experience for me," said the 33-year-old Smith, who has no plans on retiring. "I don't know what the future has in store for me. In my mind I still believe I'm a 1,300-yard back, and I'm still out to prove that."

Who will give Smith a chance is unclear. The three teams that Smith's name has been associated with most -- the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Carolina Panthers and Oakland Raiders -- each have issues that could hamper a Smith signing.

Tampa Bay appears to favor last year's starting back, Michael Pittman. Carolina reportedly has its sights set on Stephen Davis, who was let go by the Washington Redskins. The Raiders, who have a history of signing older players, had to cut $25 million from their payroll Thursday to get under the league-mandated salary cap of $75 million. Oakland currently has just one running back -- Charlie Garner -- under contract on its roster.

Smith, who said he feels good physically, is ready to battle for a spot with another team.

"Competing for a job never stops," Smith said. "You may be allocated a starting role, but at some point that role could change. I'm not a guy that's afraid of competition. I walk up to it, and I face it full throttle. Wherever I may go, I'm coming in to help someone either get to the Super Bowl, go back to the Super Bowl or go and win the Super Bowl."

The hole Emmitt Smith left behind Thursday is as big as the one the Cowboys' offensive line used to open for him. For the first time in 13 years, since they drafted Smith with the 17th pick, the Cowboys are in search of a running back.

"It feels empty," Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones said.

The NFL's all-time leading rusher gained 17,162 yards for the Cowboys. The four backs on their roster -- Troy Hambrick, Michael Wiley, Woody Dantzler and Ennis Haywood -- have a combined 1,427 career rushing yards.

Hambrick could be the Cowboys' opening-day starter, but the team isn't ready to anoint him yet. They are keeping their options open, Jones said, including free agency and the draft.

"Obviously, we'll look," Jones said. "We're going to keep our eyes open for somebody that can make us better. ... Whether it's to complement Troy or somebody to compete with Troy and Michael, that remains to be seen. We'll just have to continue to do our work and see."

The position is weak in both free agency and the draft. Stephen Davis, who was released by the Washington Redskins, is the top free agent, while Penn State running back Larry Johnson is the top prospect.

Davis, the third-leading rusher in Redskins history behind John Riggins and Larry Brown, has said he has interest in playing for the Cowboys. Jones said the team isn't interested in getting in a bidding war for his services, but the Cowboys said a year ago they couldn't afford free-agent defensive tackle La'Roi Glover before he agreed to a cap-friendly, five-year, $22.5 million deal with Dallas.

Davis, who missed all or part of six games with injuries last season when he gained just 820 yards, is expected to draw interest from New England and Carolina.

"I'm excited (about potential opportunities)," Davis said, "but I'm also sad about leaving."

Johnson, who rushed for 2,087 yards last season, would necessitate the Cowboys moving down from their No. 5 draft position. He is rated a late first-round pick, even though he is expected to be the first back selected in the April 26-27 draft.

Any other back the Cowboys could sign or draft would have to compete with Hambrick for the starting job. Hambrick has 924 yards in his three seasons, including 317 last season when he began campaigning for the job.

"I want to see if I can carry the ball 25 times in this league," Hambrick said. "I've got some great shoes to fill, the great things Emmitt has done over his career, so I get to gain that 1,000 yards."

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