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Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs

Darren McFadden, Patriots

NFL Draft

Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs

Everyone has their own principles and philosophies when it comes to building a team. That’s never more clear than during draft season, when the level of priority each of us senses for different roster positions varies greatly.

This weekend I thought I’d dive into the three glamour positions of any NFL team; running back, quarterback, and wide receiver. I wanted to share my personal philosophy about each position and how that’s shaping my sense of what the Cowboys need to do later this month in the NFL Draft.

Many want to see Dallas add an elite runner, such as Ezekiel Elliott, with the idea that such talent behind our offensive line would lead to rushing domination. Others, such as myself, feel that our offensive line is so good that you don’t need top-dollar (or top-draft pick) talent carrying the ball to get big results. Again, two different philosophies and neither of which is wrong.

Cowboys Headlines - Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs 1There’s no question that talent yields results at running back. The list of all-time rushing seasons is a who’s who of NFL running back history; Eric Dickerson, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, LaDainian Tomlinson, O.J. Simpson, Adrian Peterson, and others who are either already in Canton or headed that way. There are also plenty of borderline Hall-of-Famers such as Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, Ahman Green, and Tiki Barber on the list.

Cowboys Draft - Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs

AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

DeMarco Murray’s 1845 yards in 2014 set a Cowboys record and was the 17th-best total in NFL history. However, Murray likely isn’t headed to the Hall of Fame. His pre-2014 seasons and an abysmal season last year in Philadelphia have likely assured that. His resume isn’t even good enough for the Dallas Ring of Honor.

Last year, Darren McFadden went from the NFL scrap heap to fourth-best in the NFL. It’s plausible that McFadden would have led the league had he been the full-time runner all season, not losing carries to Joseph Randle up until Week 7. Once again, the Cowboys rushing attack was highly productive without a major investment at running back.

Coincidentally, McFadden was a former fourth-overall pick and Dallas is picking at that same spot in 2016. You might argue that McFadden previous draft status is proof that we should go after elite talent now.

Cowboys Draft - Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs 1That argument would ignore just how low McFadden’s stock was before last year. He’d only had one 1,000-yard season in seven years with the Raiders. He’d missed 29 games in that time. From 2012-2014 he was averaging just around 3.3 yards per carry. Like I said before, he was on the NFL scrap pile.

The last two years of Murray and McFadden’s production tell me that this team doesn’t need to spend big at running back to get top results. Maybe an elite talent would increase production somewhat, but will that increase be proportionate to the cost? How much more could a top-tier runner have done in 2014 to what Murray accomplished?

Perhaps even more importantly, the Cowboys need a smart financial plan to keep this offensive line together. Travis Frederick‘s rookie deal expires this year and both Zack Martin and La’el Collins could be free agents in 2018. Tyron Smith is already making a top five salary at his position. Keeping four first-round talents together for the long haul will take lots of money.

In 2016 the franchise tag number for running backs was $11.8 million. Remember, that’s the average of the top five contracts in the league for players at that position. Are you prepared to pay Elliott that kind of money four years from now? Will you even be able to given the price tag at offensive line?

Some would argue that you don’t have to worry about the second contract. They just want Elliott for these four years of his rookie deal, paying roughly $5 million a season. If he walks after that to get the big payday, like DeMarco Murray did, then we just reload with another young talent.

Cowboys Draft - Draft Philosophy: Cowboys Running Backs 2I can respect that philosophy, but let’s consider what that means in terms of your fourth-overall pick. You’re giving up a decade, potentially, with an elite talent at some other position for four or five years of a running back. If Jalen Ramsey is as elite a corner or safety as Elliott is a runner, or if Myles Jack is just as good at linebacker, wouldn’t your rather have 8-10 years with them than just half that time with Elliott? I know I would.

Obviously, every draft class is unique. Philosophies and principles are great but have to be flexible to the talent you’re presented with in each new draft.

If the Cowboys think Elliott is special in a way that none of these other guys are, then maybe they should go ahead and make that pick. If they’d rather have Ramsey but he’s off the board then I can see not “reaching” on Jack, Joey Bosa, or someone else. If Elliott is the best talent on Dallas’ board then I can’t really fuss if they draft him.

However, they have to be pretty damn sure. They are sacrificing a lot to make that pick and potentially overloading resources in one aspect of a multi-faceted game. A top five pick doesn’t come along every year (unless you’re Cleveland or Jacksonville) and you can’t use it lightly.

Obviously, I hope they find a better use for it than running back. But only time will tell if that better option exists.

And if Elliott has a 2,000 yard season on our way to a Super Bowl win, I promise to apologize.

Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I’ll be sure to respond!

4 Comments
  • Brian Martin

    I think I will probably be straddling the fence about whether or not to draft Elliott up until his name is finally called by some team. I can see both sides of the argument and I can't decide which direction I would prefer the Cowboys to go. Great article!

    • Bryson Treece

      That's exactly how I feel about it. I wouldn't be mad if they get him, or if someone else gets him.

      • Sean Martin

        Unless of course it's the Eagles or Giants. However, talked about this with Dante on my radio show when it comes to draft philosophy, and we both agreed that Dallas can't draft Elliott just to block him from one of those two teams. Have to worry about your own team at #4 and trust that whoever you pick will make you better and bring you to a level to compete with a New York or Philly team that has Zeke. Considering their approach to free agency, I'd say that's pretty likely in 2016 regardless.

  • M shepard

    If he is the best talent there by all means take him and if he turns out to be elite you find a way to pay him

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