During the 2008 NFL Draft, it was rumored that the Dallas Cowboys considered moving up for a certain Arkansas running back that would add excitement and versatility on offense. Even that player’s mother was campaigning for her son to wear the star. But in a year where there happened to be two dynamic runners from Jerry Jones’ alma mater, there wasn’t a sense of urgency to trade up into the top-five and select Darren McFadden. Why do that when you could get his sidekick later in the first round, a player some thought would be a better pro than McFadden, Felix Jones.
After scoring a touchdown on his first NFL carry and showing his elusiveness in the first six games of the 2008 season, Jones, the No. 1 prospect in the Cowboys organization, slightly tore his left hamstring and was ultimately placed on IR a month later. During his rookie campaign, Jones displayed the game breaking ability the Cowboys envisioned when they selected him, and in six games, he had 30 carries for 266 yards and three touchdowns. But durability may be a concern moving forward, especially if they have him returning kicks. Jones is a special multi-dimensional threat, and he has the size to withstand the punishment he will face each week, but as a running back and a return specialist he’s a target, and the opposition is in attack mode at all times. With Marion Barber being the lead back, it allows Jones to be a situational playmaker; similar to the way he was used at Arkansas when McFadden was the lead runner. If Jones can get stronger and stay healthy, the sky is the limit to what he can do with the ball in his hands.
In addition to drafting Jones with the 22nd pick overall in the ’08 draft, the Cowboys also owned the 25th pick overall, and looked toward the future on defense by adding the No. 2 prospect in their organization, cornerback Mike Jenkins. A silky smooth cover corner coming out of South Florida, Jenkins didn’t have a lot of pressure on him coming into Dallas, as the depth chart was quite full with Terence Newman, Anthony Henry and Adam Jones. But when Newman went down with a sports hernia and Jones got suspended, Jenkins got an opportunity to play. Jenkins played in 14 games as a rookie, starting three, and had a memorable first interception late in the season against the New York Giants as he returned it for a 23-yard touchdown. This season, with Henry and Jones no longer with the Cowboys, Jenkins is listed as a starter, and the promise that he showed late in the year last season should carry over on his way to becoming one of the rising defensive stars in the league.
Back on the offensive side of the ball, the Cowboys are excited about the potential of the third rated prospect in their organization, second-year tight end Martellus Bennett. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, Bennett provides Tony Romo with another receiving threat that has the ability to stretch the field. Bennett possesses soft hands and a knack for finding an opening over the middle. He played in all 16 games as a rookie, starting seven and caught 20 passes for 283 yards and four touchdowns. Obviously, Jason Witten is the starter at tight end, but it’ll be interesting to see how the coaching staff uses Bennett and Witten this season. It’s possible that the Cowboys line up in a lot of two tight end sets, which would put plenty of pressure on opposing linebackers.
A linebacker that has plenty of pressure on him to perform this season is the No. 4 rated prospect in the organization and 2007 first round pick Anthony Spencer. Coming out of college, Spencer was known for his consistent motor and ability to get in the backfield and disrupt. It’s been the opposite thus far for him in the NFL, as injuries and inconsistency have plagued his performance. After a promising rookie season where he recorded 36 tackles and three sacks, Spencer was putting together an outstanding training camp in ‘08 before he had to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery to remove a bone chip. That surgery led to more knee problems during the year and resulted in Spencer playing in just 12 games and making no starts. This is a make or break season in the eyes of many for Spencer. With Greg Ellis no longer in Dallas, the starting OLB job belongs to Spencer. Spencer has the talent to flourish in the Cowboys 3-4 defense, especially with his ability to come off the edge. It’s just a matter of him staying healthy, realizing his talent and being consistent for an entire season, instead of just showing flashes.
It’s early, but it’s amazing how good the 2008 draft is looking for the Cowboys; four of the top-five prospects were chosen in ’08, the fourth being running back Tashard Choice. A player in the mold of a Marion Barber, Choice was a fourth round pick just like Barber [a fourth round pick in 2005] and was impressive with his deceptive speed on the edge, ability to run between the tackles and catch the ball out of the backfield. With Felix Jones being placed on IR, Choice had a chance to step in and get some meaningful playing time. He participated in all 16 games, starting three, had 92 carries for 472 yards and two touchdowns, and also caught 21 passes for 185 yards. That’s tremendous production out of a player who wasn’t supposed to be a factor as a rookie. But now with Choice, the Cowboys have a potent three-headed monster at running back, or at the very least, they have options. If Jones has injury woes or if Barber goes down with an unforeseen injury this season, it’s good to know that they have a capable runner who can take over.The top-ten rounds out with a mixture of talent on offense, defense and special teams. Vying for a starting job this season is another player selected in 2008; checking in at No. 6 is cornerback Orlando Scandrick. After a solid rookie campaign, the fifth round selection will compete with Jenkins for the starting cornerback spot opposite Newman. At No. 7, a player who could be ranked even higher on the top-ten list is kicker Nick Folk. One of the most consistent kickers in the league, Folk has already been to a Pro Bowl, and at just 24 years of age, he’s a year or two away from being the best in the league. Appearing at No. 8 and 9 respectively are two 2009 rookies, linebacker Jason Williams and quarterback Stephen McGee. Williams, a third round pick, is an athletic defender who will compete for playing time this year and will likely see a lot of action on special teams, while McGee is a developmental player that the Cowboys have high hopes for down the road. And at No. 10, entering his third-year is offensive tackle Doug Free. He’s been a reserve behind a veteran offensive line thus far, but the Cowboys are hoping that the former fourth round pick emerges during training camp and can challenge for a starting job.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: email@example.com.