Heading into the 2008 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys were expected to target a change-of-pace running back with one of their two first-round picks as a complement to Pro Bowl back Marion Barber III. Dallas has been planning on locking up Barber to a long-term deal to slide him into the majority role in the backfield; Barber made the transition to a near-feature back last season with the ineffectiveness of the now-departed running back Julius Jones (Seattle Seahawks).
Continuing to embrace the running back-by-committee setup, the Cowboys selected former University of Arkansas running back Felix Jones, a speed back who shared last season with Heisman Trophy finalist Darren McFadden (Oakland Raiders, No. 4 pick overall). Jones does not project to be a full-time back in the NFL, and Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones acknowledged this after Dallas took him at No. 22.
It was Jones' willingness to work in a two-back system that helped Jerry Jones and head coach Wade Phillips make the decision to take him over a more traditional running back, former University of Illinois back Rashard Mendenhall. Jones has proved that he can play a utility role in the backfield and work just as hard as a starter. That was something the Cowboys valued considering the two-back system they plan on running.
The plot thickened, however, with the Cowboys' fourth-round pick of former Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice. Their prior pick of Jones seemed to be a step toward shoring up the backfield situation, but Choice provides insurance; the Cowboys remain in a stalemate with Barber in negotiations for a long-term contract. His pact is up after the 2008 season.
State of the backfield
Barber showcased his ability as a power running back last season while ranking just 21st in the league with 204 carries; he did not start a game all season but was the main option. Barber had just one game with 20-plus attempts (22 in Week 16 against the Carolina Panthers) and three 100-yard performances. Still, he was one of the breakout backs from last season, and Dallas likely will look to increase his workload a bit.
Table: Cowboys' 2007 Running Backs
Jones recorded just 133 carries during his final season at Arkansas, but rushed for 1,162 yards and maintained a 7.6 yards-per-carry average for his collegiate career. He fits with Dallas' current makeup better than Mendenhall, who projected too similarly to Barber's game. They will likely gear the former Razorback toward tosses and outside runs along with an abundant presence in the passing game when he spells Barber. Offensive coordinator Jason Garrett was missing a true speed threat last season, and he likely will expand the playbook with Jones' arrival. With his breakaway speed and experience as a return man at Arkansas, Jones could also contribute in the return game with suspended cornerback Pacman Jones, who could be reinstated for the 2008 season.
It was a bit of a surprise, but the pick of Choice makes sense if the Cowboys are having doubts about being able to come to terms with Barber. Keep in mind that Barber's new agent is Drew Rosenhaus. Negotiating may not be such a piece of cake anymore. Choice fits into Barber's mold - a pounding inside runner who can also factor in the receiving game. Choice has average speed without a second gear, and his 5-foot-11, 215-pound frame is not ideal for his aggressive running style. Unlike Jones, however, Choice could easily give Barber a breather while running plays designed for Barber.
Fantasy football outlook
Barber likely comes into the 2008 season as an above-average No. 1 fantasy back because of his nose for the end zone and his continued expectation to be the top backfield option; he should be taken near the end of the first round or the early portion of the second. However, he hasn't reached 1,000 yards in his career, so make sure to back up your squad with a competent No. 2 fantasy back in the next round.
Jones will have several roles to play for the Cowboys, but he might not have the same impact for fantasy players. Even with the increasing number of successful two-back systems in the NFL, he likely won't receive the necessary workload to justify being taken as anything more than a moderate No. 4 back or as a handcuff to Barber. Jones, does, however, have the upside to produce strong No. 3 numbers within his limited role.
Choice's stock ranks substantially below Jones' without a defined role in place. Essentially, Choice would need Barber to suffer an injury to see an influx in playing time. The Cowboys likely will give him at least a small piece of the action because they probably want to see how effective he would be in case they can't bring Barber back next season. He shouldn't be drafted in any league without a full-retention roster.
About Tim Heaney
Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum competes in Tout Wars and LABR and has won several industry leagues in both baseball and football.
During baseball and football season, hear him every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore. On Thursdays, he visits 106.1 FM WMTI in New Orleans and Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio, where he often crashes other shows, as well.
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