The majority view right now is that running back Lance Dunbar, who was re-signed to a one-year deal in March, will begin the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) List. He is still recovering from a major left knee injury that occurred in Week 4 last year.
Dallas chose to bring back Dunbar despite this injury, no doubt due to the major role he was starting to find in 2015. He had 21 catches from Weeks 1-3, tying Jason Witten for the team lead during those weeks.
Five days after re-signing Dunbar the Cowboys also added veteran running back Alfred Morris. The two moves seemed perfectly compatible; Dunbar may not be able to start the season and plays more as a receiver than runner anyway. However, now that Dallas spent their first-round pick on Ezekiel Elliott the future for Dunbar is much murkier.
So far it’s been Darren McFadden who’s getting all of the speculation about a potential release, and that’s still quite valid. But adding Elliott has now complicated things for Dunbar as well. If Zeke gets the workhorse touches that we’re projecting then there won’t be much left for any other backs, especially on the ground but even through the air.
Dunbar getting a late start to the year won’t help things. Being out during training camp and preseason gives extra opportunities to prospects like Rod Smith and Darius Jackson. Ever bit of confidence that the team starts to put in those young players hurts older guys like Dunbar and McFadden.
What’s worse, Dunbar’s role as a receiver could be threatened by Lucky Whitehead. Almost certain to make the team as the primary return man, Whitehead started to get looks in the offense late last year. He was getting similar plays and routes to what Dunbar was seeing early in the season.
Dallas certainly won’t cut Dunbar before they have to. The PUP list gives them a nice option to sit on him as long as possible and perhaps have him provide injury insurance if another play goes down. Dunbar high production early last year shows a system familiarity that will allow him to provide instant impact if he’s healthy and there’s an opening for him.
Still, there’s a rising possibility that Dunbar will go straight from the PUP list to the cut list. Dunbar’s one-year deal only had $100k in guaranteed money, making him an easy release if there’s no spot for him.
It’s reasonable that Dunbar wouldn’t even have a team right now if Dallas hadn’t brought him back, given the extent of his injury. He did visit with other teams last March before re-signing with the Cowboys, leading me to believe he was never offered a contract by someone else. Though it would be a cruel turn for Dunbar if he winds up released, it wouldn’t be cruelty on Dallas’ part.
If anything, they’ve already been more compassionate than other franchises would.