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Dallas Cowboys Training Camp Battles, Part III: Tashard Choice vs. Phillip Tanner vs. Lonyae Miller

Jonathan Bales

Click here to read Part I or Part II of the “Training Camp Battles” Series.

Despite not playing a single down all preseason, rookie DeMarco Murray’s roster spot at running back is obviously safe.  With Felix Jones set to be a bit of a workhorse this season, the Cowboys’ final running back will likely need to play special teams.  One of the contenders–Tashard Choice–doesn’t particularly enjoy playing special teams.  Of the other two options, one (Lonyae Miller) has run tentatively in the preseason, while the other (Phillips Tanner) has been outstanding.  Let’s break down the cases for each player. . .

  • Tashard Choice

Choice had an up-and-down 2010 season, finishing with a C+ (78.9%) overall grade.  In my 2010 Running Back Grades, I graded Choice as follows:

Short-Yardage Running: B-

Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film.  To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate).  He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.  Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.

Overall Running:  C-

Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability.  I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game.  He needs some time to get going.  Is that ideal?  No, but it does appear to be the case.

When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well.  He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option.  He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?

Receiving:  B-

Choice is a natural pass-catcher.  Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.

Pass Protection:  B

I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season.  He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season.  I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.

Choice has been a productive player for the Cowboys when given snaps, but Jason Garrett doesn’t like that Choice won’t play special teams (and for good reason).  As a No. 3 back, it should be a given that special teams duties are in your future.

If the Cowboys cut or trade Choice, they could be in some trouble.  Rookie DeMarco Murray is a true unknown at this point, and it would be quite risky to have No. 2 and No. 3 running backs with zero NFL experience behind a starter who has an above average chance of getting injured.

Thus, I think you’ll see Choice either get traded or make the final roster.  If Garrett can get a mid-round draft pick for him, he’ll probably pull the trigger.  If not, I don’t think Choice will be released and he may even enter the season as the No. 2 running back.

Running: 5

Receiving: 7

Pass Protection: 7

Special Teams: 0

Total: 19

  • Lonyae Miller

Miller has been awful in the preseason.  Outside of a pancake block on Sunday night, he has been poor as a runner, receiver and pass protector.  No. 3 running backs need to do a variety of things well, and Miller doesn’t do any of them at a particularly high level.  He’ll play special teams, but again, that should be a given.

Running: 2

Receiving: 3

Pass Protection: 4

Special Teams: 5

Total: 14

  • Phillip Tanner

Tanner has been one of the biggest surprises for Dallas this preseason.  He has run with power and explosiveness, highlighted by his breakout performance on Sunday night.  He kind of reminds me of a young Marion Barber, but with a lot more wiggle.  He’s not afraid to lower his pads and hit a defender in the mouth, but he can run around them too.  You know that kind of attitude will translate well to special teams.

Tanner’s biggest con is his lack of experience.  The Cowboys know what they have in Choice and even Miller, but Tanner’s uncertainty might scare off Garrett.  If Jones gets injured and Murray isn’t as advertised, what happens if Tanner isn’t what we saw the other night?

Running: 8

Receiving: 6

Pass Protection: 6

Special Teams: 7

Total: 27

Conclusions

So far, I have been assuming the Cowboys will retain just three running backs.  That is standard practice, especially with so many potential fullbacks and tight ends on the team.  Of course, you want to keep as close to the best 53 guys on the team as possible, and if four running backs deserve to be on the squad, then they should all make it.

If Tanner continues to play as he did Sunday night, I don’t know how Garrett will cut him.  It would be a bonehead move to try to sneak him onto the practice squad, in my opinion, because a running back-hungry team will scoop him up in no time.  His presence on the roster would lead to too much inexperience at running back, however, so I think he should be the fourth running back–behind Jones, Murray and Choice.  Unless Miller can suddenly learn to kick field goals with great accuracy, he isn’t making this team.

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Grading the ‘Boys in 2010, Part IX: Running Backs

Jonathan Bales

Already graded: Defensive lineinside linebackersoutside linebackerssafetiescornerbackstight ends, wide receivers, and offensive line.

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In Part VII of my “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, I analyzed the efficiency of six Cowboys’ offensive linemen in both run blocking and pass protection.  In doing so, I attempted to isolate one component of the offense as effectively as possible to determine the worth of individual players.

In reality, of course, offenses are holistic systems.  The productivity of each position indirectly affects the ability of players at each other position to properly perform.  In the running game, the success of linemen is affected greatly by the talent level of the running backs, and vice versa.

Today, I will study the productivity of Marion Barber, Felix Jones, and Tashard Choice.  These three players all contributed in different ways and in distinct situations, so keep that in mind when analyzing the statistics gathered from my film study.

Notes:

  • In this particular analysis, I will grade each running back on four components:  short-yardage running, overall running, receiving, and pass protection.
  • The four components of the overall grade are not all equal.  They will be weighted 15/45/20/20, respectively.
  • As always, the best stats are circled in blue, the worst in red.

Grades

  • Marion Barber

Short-Yardage Running: C-

Barber’s short-yardage running was once again sub-par in 2010.  Other than a 5/5 day against Minnesota (which I think was due more to the Vikings’ defensive scheme than Barber’s ability), Barber proved he simply doesn’t possess the power he once did.  He frequently stumbles before even receiving the handoff and, for whatever reason, dances in the backfield instead of hitting the hole hard.  He converted only 75.0 percent of plays with one yard-to-go.

Overall Running: D-

Barber averaged only 3.7 yards-per-carry in 2010, including just 2.2 YAC-per-rush–down from 2.7 in ’09.  There were very few times when Barber appeared even somewhat explosive.  The numbers are really irrelevant here–anyone who watched Cowboys games this season knows Barber is done.

Receiving: C-

What was once a strength of Barber’s game is now a weakness.  Barber is sure-handed, but he appears extremely hesitant after catching the ball and turning upfield.  Barber should know he’s a power back (or was one) who shouldn’t try to make a ton of moves.  He tries to run like Barry Sanders, but he has the agility of Refrigerator Perry.

Pass Protection:  B+

This is really where Barber can still help the Cowboys.  I attributed zero sacks to him in 2010.  His success stems from a willingness to do the dirty work.  Barber appears to take pride in his blocking, which is admirable.

The problem now is that Barber’s diminished skill set as both a runner and receiver make it difficult to put him on the field on third down.  Sure, he can block, but if he poses no threat out of the backfield, why not put another tight end in the game?

  • Felix Jones

Short-Yardage Running: A-

Some readers were a bit stunned when I provided Jones with the highest sh0rt-yardage running grade last season, but in 2010 it became clear he’s the team’s best option with just a few yards left for a first down.  Jones converted 88.2 percent of runs with 1-3 yards-to-go.  Only 9.2 percent of Jones’ runs came in such situations, however–less than half the rate of Barber–so Jason Garrett would be smart to utilize Jones more on short-yardage plays.

2010 Snap Counts: Barber-292, Jones-571, Choice-220

Many fans, analysts, and coaches argue that you need a humongous running back for short-yardage plays, but I disagree.  Mammoth backs like Brandon Jacobs can sometimes get stuffed in short-yardage situations because they lack the lateral quickness to dodge defenders.  If the primary hole is clogged, it’s difficult for any running back, regardless of size, to power his way through.  Instead, the ability to make one quick cut to elude a defender and then get upfield seems to me to be a more effective method of converting short-yardage plays.

Perhaps that’s why you see Jones with a 13.0 percent broken tackle rate–by far the best on the team.

Overall Running:  B+

Jones’ 4.3 yards-per-carry isn’t stellar, but it’s certainly superior to the 3.7 average from Barber and Choice.  Jones’ big-play ability gives the Cowboys a much-needed explosive dimension on the ground, but I still think Garrett needs to do a better job of utilizing Jones’ skill set.  Jones averaged 10.0 and 7.3 yards-per-carry, respectively, on counters in 2009 and 2010.  The 35 total counters in that sample size is reaching the point where we can say Jones’ 9.0 overall yards-per-carry on counters is statistically significant.

In getting Jones out on the edge more often, I think you’ll see his yards-per-rush increase pretty significantly in 2011.

Receiving:  A-

Jones’ improvement in the passing game was extremely valuable to the ‘Boys this season.  According to my numbers, Jones caught a ridiculous 48 of the 50 passes intended for him (that’s 96 percent folks).  His 9.38 yards-per-reception average is incredible, particularly when you factor in the predictability of some of Jones’ catches.  Garrett often dialed up the same “flare/screen” from the formation below (Double Tight Left Twins Right Ace), but Jones’ explosiveness made up for it.

Pass Protection:  C-

If I was Jason Garrett, I would have Jones work on pass protection more than any other aspect of his game.  The Cowboys need Jones on the field on as many downs as possible, but Jones’ lack of pass protection makes that difficult.  I credited him with yielding three sacks despite being in pass protection on just 107 snaps.  Jones possesses the ability to be fine in pass protection, so right now it’s about his mindset.

  • Tashard Choice

Short-Yardage Running: B-

Choice’s sample size of 10 short-yardage runs isn’t enough for those stats to mean much, so we have to judge his performance with film.  To me, Choice did just an average job on short-yardage in 2010, but I think he’s a better player than what his numbers indicate (70.0 percent conversion rate).  He doesn’t have incredible explosiveness, but he always seems to be either elusive or strong enough to adequately perform his job.

Still, Choice’s yards-after-contact and broken tackle numbers need to improve.

Overall Running:  C-

Again, I don’t think Choice’s numbers match up with his actual ability.  I think Choice is the type of player who performs well as he becomes accustomed to the flow of the game.  He needs some time to get going.  Is that ideal?  No, but it does appear to be the case.

When Choice has received that extra playing time in the past, he’s done well.  He’ll never be a feature back, but I certainly believe he can be a very productive No. 2 option.  He’s solid in every aspect of running back play, but will Garrett even want him around in 2011?

Receiving:  B-

Choice is a natural pass-catcher.  Again, he’s not flashy and won’t take a screen pass 60 yards to the house, but he will consistently put himself in position to convert first downs.

Pass Protection:  B

I think Choice regressed just a bit in his pass protection this season.  He really struggled in the preseason, but he got it cleaned up (for the most part) during the regular season.  I attributed one sack and three pressures to Choice.

Overall 2010 Running Back Grades

1.  Felix Jones: B (86.3)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (89.8)

2. Tashard Choice: C+ (78.9)

  • 2009 Grade: B+ (87.3)

3. Marion Barber:  C- (71.3)

  • 2009 Grade: C+(77.2)

In 2009, Barber received 54.3 percent of the regular season rushes, with Jones garnering 29.5 percent and Choice 16.2 percent.  In the offseason, I called for the breakdown to be 50/30/20 for Jones, Choice, and Barber, respectively.

The actual breakdown was remarkably similar (51/31/18), except Barber received the second-most carries.

In 2011, that breakdown is almost certain to change again, as either Barber or Choice will likely be out of Dallas.  Barber’s contract and diminishing ability make him the logical choice to go, but Garrett seems to still like Barber (and dislike Choice).

In my opinion, it will be a tragedy if Barber is still in a Cowboys uniform in 2011.  With Choice more than capable of handling third downs, there’s really no place for Barber anymore.  He’s poor in short-yardage situations and is terrible in the open-field.  To me, the only thing Barber can do better than a mid-round (or even late-round) draft pick is protect the quarterback.

The ‘Boys will obviously need to acquire another running back if either Barber or Choice leave.  Some mid/late-round draft possibilities include Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray, Cal’s Shane Vereen, Syracuse’s Delone Carter, Clemson’s Jamie Harper, and Wisconsin’s John Clay.

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Tashard Choice next Cowboys player to be traded?

Calvin Watkins of ESPN Dallas is reporting that the Cowboys are fielding trade offers for running backs Marion Barber and Tashard Choice.  A trade of Barber looks highly unlikely, though, as Barber’s contract should probably scare away any suitors.

Interestingly, while the Cowboys have shot down the possibility of trading Barber, they haven’t ruled out dealing Choice.  The team probably believes that with Choice’s talent, they could receive a player who could make a bigger impact than the third-string running back.

They’re wrong.  I explained a couple days ago why I think Choice is the team’s best running back.  He’s not flashy like Adrian Peterson or Chris Johnson, but he does everything really, really well.  In a recent installment of our “22 in 22” Emmitt Smith Tribute Series, I explained that Emmitt was the same way:

Emmitt Smith is one of the greatest running backs in NFL history, yet I can envision that, 50 years down the line, people will not consider him as such.  He rarely cracks people’s lists of the top three running backs of all-time (or even the top five, for that matter).  I don’t even know of a person who considers the NFL’s all-time leading rusher to be the league’s best ever running back.

The problem (for others, not for Emmitt) is that Smith wasn’t flashy.  He wasn’t big.  He wasn’t tremendously fast.  He wasn’t even very charismatic off of the field.

Instead, Emmitt possessed the “boring” qualities of running backs (but ones that are just as vital as those above, if not more so): great vision, incredible balance, and remarkable short area quickness.  Of course, there’s also the off-field characteristics, such as determination, but I want to focus on why Emmitt’s on-field play was truly under-appreciated.

Does Emmitt’s game remind you of anyone?  Not big, not flashy.  Great vision, incredible balance, and remarkable short area quickness.  If it still isn’t ringing a bell, take a look at my recent notes on Tashard Choice:

Tashard Choice is Dallas’ most complete running back.  His balance and vision are incredible.

Now, I’m not saying Choice is as talented as Emmitt or has that sort of future, but he does possess the same characteristics which made Emmitt’s game so incredible, yet so under-appreciated.

From a practical standpoint, Dallas will be very sorry if they unload Choice.  Barber and Jones don’t exactly have a great history of health.  What happens when one of them gets hurt this season?  You ready to roll with Lonyae Miller or Herb Donaldson as your primary backup?  Yikes.

In my “Grading the ‘Boys”: Running Backs segment, I provided Choice with a ‘B+’ overall grade for his play in 2009.  There were four components to that grade, and as you might expect with Choice, he was consistently good in all of them.  A ‘B+’ for short-yardage running, a ‘B’ for overall running, a ‘B+’ for receiving, and an ‘A-‘ for pass protection.

In my opinion, trading Choice because he’s so talented is analogous to buying a Ferrari and letting it sit in the garage forever.  Yeah, it’s nice to have a Ferrari, but it isn’t all that much fun if you don’t drive it.  It would be stupid to trade in the Ferrari for a Hyundai simply because you’d get more use out of the Hyundai.  How about, oh I don’t know, you drive your Ferrari?

Don’t trade Choice simply because you think another player might get more playing time.  You don’t need a Hyundai, Jerry–you’re rich.

And you’ve got a Ferrari sitting in the garage, just aching for his opportunity to be driven.


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Dallas Cowboys Times’ Final 2009 Offense Grades, Player Rankings

About a week ago, we published our final Cowboys defensive player rankings for the 2009 season.  A few surprises were included, such as Keith Brooking being rated higher than Jay Ratliff, and Victor Butler ahead of Gerald Sensabaugh (don’t forget our ratings are not for overall production, but rather efficiency).

Now, we have concluded our “Grading the ‘Boys” Series, with the final offensive player rankings below.  You can find each individual offensive position study here: quarterback, running backs, tight ends, wide receivers, offensive line (run blocking), offensive line (pass protection). We will post overall player rankings (both offense and defense) in the near future.

A few notes before reading:

  • This is not a comprehensive list of everyone who played offense last season, but rather those players who participated in enough plays to gather statistically significant results.
  • It is also not a ranking of the best offensive players, but rather a list of the most important players to the team (as we see it) in 2009.
  • Lastly, players listed in blue are those we expect to improve in 2010.  We anticipate a decline in production from those players listed in red, and neither a vast improvement or deterioration in play from those listed in black.

1.  QB Tony Romo:  94.0 (A)

Threw only six interceptions over final 14 regular season games

T2.  TE Jason Witten:  93.0 (A-)

Team averaged nearly two full yards-per-attempt better when he was in route (9.3 yards) versus blocking (7.4)

T2.  WR Miles Austin:  93.0 (A-)

Dropped only 2.2% of balls and tallied an incredible 10.4 yards-per-attempt

T2. RG Leonard Davis:  93.0 (A-)

Average of 4.57 yards-per-carry when at point-of-attack is outstanding for guard; also gave up lowest negative run percentage

5.  C Andre Gurode:  91.0 (A-)

Solid in the run game and yielded least pressures and hits of any lineman–could be most crucial component of line in 2010

6. RB Felix Jones:  89.8 (A-)

Surprisingly the team’s top runner after contact (3.3 yards-after contact per run); averaged an incredible 10.0 yards-per-carry on 22 counter runs

7. RB Tashard Choice:  87.3 (B+)

Team-high 31.8% of runs up the middle and 5.8 yards-per-carry in that area could make him the 2010 short-yardage RB

8.  LG Kyle Kosier:  85.4 (B)

Perhaps offense’s most underrated player–led offensive line with just one sack yielded in 2009

9.  RT Doug Free:  80.6 (B-)

Will utilize athleticism at left tackle, but 4.54 yards-per-rush behind him last season much too low for right tackle

10.  TE Martellus Bennett:  80.0 (B-)

Quietly one of the team’s better blockers, but needs to increase his 51.7% completion percentage on balls thrown his way

11.  RT Marc Colombo:  79.4 (B-)

Gave up highest percentage of quarterback hits (by far) and largest percentage of negative runs (by far)

12.  TE John Phillips:  78.0 (C+)

Nice rookie season, but must improve as a blocker, particularly out of fullback position (only 3.7 yards-per-rush when in game)

13. RB Marion Barber:  77.2 (C+)

Name in red due to projected lack of production, not efficiency in 2010–should improve with less touches

14.  WR Patrick Crayton:  77.0 (C+)

Reliable player who lacks explosiveness–could be on another team in 2010

15.  LT Flozell Adams:  73.4 (C-)

Still a good run blocker, but led team in sacks, pressures, and penalties

16.  WR Roy Williams:  67.4 (D+)

Only 46.2% of targets ended in completion, but he will improve in 2010