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Faceoff: The Cowboys Backfield

August 4th

Clayton Gray: With the addition of Demarco Murray and expected release of Marion Barber III, the Dallas backfield is very much in flux. How do you think it will shake out in 2011?

Jeff Tefertiller: I am not a Murray fan at all. This situation is primed for Felix Jones to have ample opportunity in the Jason garrett offense. Barber's nearly $5 million salary should help him get released. Fantasy owners should love to see Jones available in the 5th and 6th rounds for a RB2. If he gets injured, Tashard Choice could surprise again. But, in the end, Jones is the back to own in Dallas.

Matt Waldman: The Cowboys backfield is a prime example where a fantasy owner should adopt a draft day strategy of attempting to get the best value from the smallest investment. Whether or not you like DeMarco Murray is a secondary factor in this situation. The Cowboys drafted the rookie runner at the top of the third round. Furthermore, Jerry Jones revealed they had a grade on Murray that was at least a round higher than where they took him.

This means they had a low-first, high-second round grade on the RB from OU. When a team places this high of a priority on a running back it means they aren't completely happy with the backfield. Marion Barber isn't the reason Dallas spent a high third-round pick on Murray. The team is not sold on Felix Jones or Tashard Choice as the lead back and they are skittish that if one of these backs gets hurt the other won't be good enough to do it by himself for an extended period of time.

Personally, I'm a fan of Murray. He's a patient, smart runner with explosive skills who will play hurt and deliver. However, fantasy owners shouldn't be thinking about this situation as a "do I - don't I," like Murray decision.

I agree with Jeff that Felix Jones will get the first shot at the job. If you're waiting until the mid-rounds to take starting runners then Jones is a nice risk-reward investment after round five. The reasons are Jones' talent, the Cowboys offensive versatility that should open the field for the Cowboys RBs, and you can still target Choice and/or Murray in this go-heavy RB strategy for the mid-to-late rounds.

However, if you've already selected running backs in the first four rounds, I would much rather take quality players at other positions and then take a chance on Choice or Murray much later. The concern I have for the backfield is if all three players stay healthy. Who will get the short-yardage/red zone opportunities? I think there's a good chance Choice or Murray earn it.

Bottom line, this isn't backfield I believe will provide top-20 starter fantasy production from one player unless Murray wins the job outright. I say this because if Murray beats the two vets as a rookie, he's likely going to see his role expand as the season progresses and he'll still be a relatively good value. I don't think Murray wins the job outright this year, but he's the player I'd be monitoring to determine when and where I want to invest in this backfield.

Jeff Tefertiller: Matt, I almost think this should not be a concern at all given the injury history of Jones and Murray. In general, I agree with the notion that there will not be an elite season from any of the three. But, Jones should be a solid RB2 ... especially in PPR leagues.

Matt Waldman: Jeff, that's funny and you're right: the injury concern should be a small one. However, we've waited three years for Jones to produce. Last year wasn't bad - 1250 total yards in 16 games - but that's flex-play material.

The injury history on Murray might turn out to be a bit overblown. He missed five games in his career and the serious injuries were issues addressed in the offseason.I worry more about guys who won't play with a pain than guys who deal with injuries. Murray played with injuries.

Murray has also focused on addressing his injury issues with the type of training that will make him more flexible and balanced in his strength. Guys with injury issues tend to have problems where they over-train one area of the body and under-train another. They also tend to be inflexible. Donte Stallworth was a great example of an highly inflexible athlete who couldn't stay healthy and wasn't known as a great worker.

What I'm explaining was explained to me by a one-time professional trainer who was an FSU safety that eventually worked for an MLB team as a trainer and he was returning to school to earn a PhD at Georgia while with the football team as a trainer.

Work ethic and working smart can make a big difference on the injury front. The fact that Murray has been working on his total body strength and flexibility is a good sign that he'll likely work past these issues. The same maturity that Murray had to address his decision-making as a runner between the tackles and he evolved into a better interior runner is the same maturity he's using to become a more physically-ready football player.

While I agree Jones is the incumbent and likely starter with the first chance to succeed, it has been three years that Jones has been regarded as an injury-prone guy. During that time I haven't seen a report that he's doing anything to address it. Has anyone?

Mark Wimer: The tendency of the Cowboys in years past has been running back by committee - will that change during 2011? I wouldn't bet on it, as now-head-coach Jason Garrett was the offensive coordinator under Wade Phillips from 2007 until Phillips was fired (and Garrett was assistant head coach from 2008 forward until taking over as interim head coach during 2010). The spreading of the workload will keep the Boys' backs from a top-20 finish, in my opinion.

Jeff Pasquino: I'm staying far away from the Cowboys' running backs this year. I understand that all NFL RBs have value from a fantasy perspective, but the risk of Felix Jones getting injured is way too high for him to be a Top 30 draft pick for me. I'd rather look towards other upside guys like Delone Carter in Indy or Marshawn Lynch in Seattle after 20 RBs go off the board. Jones hasn't shown that he can be a workhorse back, so a committee has to be expected. That could be Tashard Choice and Jones, while rookie DemMarco Murray will also look for touches. None of that screams RB1 or even RB2 from fantasy for me, so I am focused solely on a passing game for the Cowboys for fantasy in 2011.