The Cowboys’ running game is sure to improve in 2011 simply from the release of Marion Barber. Barber received far too many touches last season, particularly in short-yardage situations. Last season, I suggested the Cowboys use a 50/30/20 split between Felix Jones, Tashard Choice and Marion Barber, respectively. They used almost that identical ratio, except Barber received more touches than Choice.
Before I try to project the 2011 touches, let’s analyze each back’s skill set. In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I noted that, although a generally underrated player, Jones needs to drastically improve his pass protection. Despite the 86.3% overall grade, I gave Jones a C- in pass protection. Tashard Choice received a B in pass protection. Rookie DeMarco Murray is likely to struggle in pass protection as well, particularly having completed no offseason team work. Speaking of Murray, let’s take a look at my scouting report on him:
Murray has solid agility and start-and-stop ability. His quickness and long speed are both really, really good. He ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Combine and he really does possess home run ability. While I don’t like the timing of the pick, I think there are only a few runners in this draft who are better for Dallas than Murray. He’s an insurance policy against a Felix Jones injury, which was really an underrated “hole” for the ‘Boys.
If you haven’t done so yet, check out Murray’s career numbers. I don’t look at stats when I look at film because 1) they could potentially cloud my judgment and 2) I don’t particularly care. At the running back position, though, you always want to see a guy produce no matter the circumstances. Murray had a ridiculous 63 total touchdowns in his career and, more important to me, 157 career receptions (including 71 alone in 2010). Running backs must be able to catch the ball nowadays, and Murray is a natural receiver.
Murray is a continuation of what appears to be a revised draft plan for the Cowboys. He’s a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game. Tyron Smith is a versatile player who will be especially helpful in the passing game. Bruce Carter is a versatile player who will be especially useful in the passing game. See a trend?
Murray’s vision is solid and he makes very quick decisions with the football. You won’t see Murray dancing in the backfield. He isn’t great after contact, however, and his legs sometimes die after he gets hit. He isn’t particularly effective in short-yardage situations either. Due to his upright running style and carelessness with the football, I think he could be prone to fumbles at the next level.
A major reason I think the ‘Boys had Murray rated so highly is that he has value as a returner. The Cowboys don’t want Dez Bryant on returns again and it’s unclear what Akwasi Owusu-Ansah and Bryan McCann can do, so Murray’s return ability could be useful as soon as 2011.
In a nutshell, Murray is Felix Jones with less experience, better natural pass-catching ability, a little less size, and superior return ability. I love his skill set, and I think he will contribute immediately as a rookie. Having said that, the Cowboys already have some uncertainty on their offensive line, and their ability to keep Tony Romo upright could be complicated with a small rookie running back taking on defensive ends and linebackers.
Thus, despite his receiving skills, I think Murray should play primarily on first and second down. The Cowboys can still get him the ball in space, particularly since they should throw more first down passes anyway. Here is a breakdown of Dallas’ third down running back usage in 2010.
With Murray able to give Jones a breather, I think both Jones and Choice should handle the majority of third downs. And despite popular opinion, Jones should receive short-yardage touches. Look at the numbers below.
Ultimately, I propose the Cowboys use the following breakdown of snaps (and touches):
1st Down: 65 percent Jones/25 percent Murray/10 percent Choice
2nd Down: 50 percent Jones/35 percent Murray/15 percent Choice
3rd Down: 55 percent Choice/40 percent Jones/5 percent Murray
Using the same percentage of 1st, 2nd and 3rd down plays as in 2010, this equates to Jones receiving a whopping 56 percent of the touches. Murray would receive 26 percent, and Choice just 18 percent.
Disagree with my assessment? Think that is too much work for Jones? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
As an aside, the Cowboys signed left guard Kyle Kosier to a three-year deal. I really like the move. Despite his age, I graded Kosier as the top offensive lineman on the team last season, giving him an 86.2% (B). That grade, which was the seventh-highest in my Overall Player Rankings, included a C- in run blocking and an A in pass protection. In a recent article on why the Cowboys should re-sign Kosier, I wrote:
Kosier’s ability to protect the quarterback and the lack of a starting-quality guards behind him on the roster makes me think the Cowboys will be re-signing Kosier whenever that is made possible. And that is the right move. Kosier shouldn’t get a huge contract, but signing him to a two-year deal makes a lot of sense to me.
Leonard Davis, on the other hand, may not be so lucky.
Looks like I win again.