Is the Cowboys’ 2015 Lead Running Back on the Roster?

The Cowboys have many formerly-hyped, potentially-talented backs on their roster. Could one be their feature back?

I’ve always been a fan of comic books and superheroes, but I was never able to get into DC Comics when I was younger. Part of this is due to the fact that my dad had reams and reams of Marvel Comics in our basement that I pored over as a child, but the stories that Marvel told always seemed more realistic as well. They were average people caught up in situations outside of their control, given superpowers not because they were born into them or sought to be a masked crusader on their own decision. They happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, but they stepped up and rose to the occasion. These stories were triumphs of the little guy.

It’s for this reason that I find myself fascinated with the current Dallas Cowboys’ depth chart at running back. Now that DeMarco Murray has departed for greener jerseys, none of the four on the roster –- Lance Dunbar, Darren McFadden, Joseph Randle, and Ryan Williams –- will blow anyone away at first glance. Yet, given the opportunity laying in wait behind the Cowboys’ elite offensive line, it seems there is an occasion to rise to. Could any of these players answer the call, and be the backfield hero Dallas needs?

Lance Dunbar

Nobody embodies the idea of “average, with potential” more in this squad than fourth-year receiving back Lance Dunbar. The perception around the league is that the diminutive scatback has electric change-of-pace moves and great passing-down ability; he’s seen as a Shane Vereen Lite type of player. But can this former DeMarco Murray complement seize the opportunity presented in this backfield?

We’ll be able to see what Dunbar has done with his limited touches so far, in the first three years of his career in Dallas, by looking at how he stacks up in Net Expected Points (NEP). NEP takes the numbers we get in the box score and assigns them contextual value as they relate to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we get to see just how much each play individually and each player on the whole influence the outcome of the game. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

The table below shows Dunbar’s production in terms of Rushing NEP, Reception NEP, and Target NEP since 2012, as well as his annual ranks among running backs with at least 20 rushing attempts. Does he look like a feature back in the making?

YearRush NEPPer RushRec NEPTarget NEP
2012-1.43 (45th)-0.07 (t-63rd)2.12 (72nd)-2.87 (84th)
20133.31 (21st)0.11 (t-6th)-0.77 (75th)-0.77 (43rd)
2014-5.47 (58th)-0.20 (t-95th)18.93 (17th)15.74 (7th)

Aside from the obvious physical profile (5’8”, 195 pounds), Dunbar’s rushing production just does nothing to wow the analytical observer. He did rank in the top-25 based on raw rushing production in 2013 –- as well as top-10 in per-attempt Rushing NEP -– but that seems to be more fluke than fact, as he’s been outside the top-40 every other season. In fact, his per-attempt Rushing NEP this past season was only a few ranks above the bottom of the league.

That said, Dunbar made serious strides in his pass-catching ability this past year, under the tutelage of offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Linehan notoriously loves to get his running backs the ball through the air, and this effect played well to Dunbar’s natural abilities -- he ranked in the top 20 in both Reception and Target NEP in 2014. Going forward, we should see his passing game role expand –- especially if the Cowboys’ lead runner is more of a two-down power back –- but Dunbar does not have the production resumé or physical profile to lead an NFL backfield.

Darren McFadden

I don’t even need to really get into him here, for two primary reasons. First, Darren McFadden has been uninjured and active for just under 75% of his total possible games in the NFL –- 83 out of 112 games since 2008 –- but last season was the first in his career playing a full 16 games. It’s a better bet that McFadden play 12 or fewer games in a season than not, and the Cowboys invested in him appropriately -– he’ll only be making $200,000 guaranteed.

Secondly, our Editor-in-Chief JJ Zachariason broke down exactly why McFadden has been so terrible even when he was healthy. You can check out JJ’s reasoninghere. I agree with every part of it.

Joseph Randle

The Cowboys’ selection at 151st overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, Randle has been useful as a change-of-pace player for the Cowboys, especially when Murray got banged up in 2013 for two games. With more of a primary runner physical and measurable profile than Lance Dunbar, he was the speed back toting the rock while Dunbar was the passing-down option in the Cowboys’ brief committee.

But how did he really perform when we break him down by NEP?

YearRush NEPPer RushRec NEPTarget NEP
2013-5.80 (58th)-0.11 (t-74th)3.24 (56th)2.39 (31st)
20145.44 (15th)0.11 (t-6th)0.54 (91st)-4.13 (88th)

As far as 50-carry backs go, Randle was pretty passable. This past season, he became a very efficient runner among those with at least 20 rushes on the season, ranking 6th in Rushing NEP on a per-attempt basis. With just over fifty rushes on the year, Randle ranked 15th in the league in raw Rushing NEP. This is absolutely exceptional considering the volume he received, and he could -– in theory -– progress even more on the ground if given a larger share of backfield touches.

Where Randle suffers, however, is in the receiving game. Not only did the Cowboys distrust him to the point that he was afforded just 15 targets combined over his two seasons, his net Target NEP was a paltry -1.74. This means that the Cowboys have actually lost the opportunity to score points –- which is really hard to do -– when throwing the ball to Randle. He has the running profile to succeed at the front of a committee, but his lack of reliability in the air makes him worrisome to count on as a true lead back.

Ryan Williams

Ryan Williams is the most enigmatic of all of the options on the roster. He received more guaranteed money on his latest contract than Darren McFadden, but has spent the last two years either rehabbing myriad shoulder and knee injuries on the Cardinals’ injured reserve list and Cowboys’ practice squad. This former 38th overall selection had loads of upside when selected, but could he still reach those heights?

In his only season active and healthy, his rookie 2012, Williams was highly ineffective. The table below shows this in very clear terms.

YearRush NEPPer RushRec NEPTarget NEP
2012-19.37 (85th)-0.33 (t-89th)3.17 (47th)-0.02 (53rd)

He was intended to be the complement to Beanie Wells, but even Wells himself got injured and the whole Cardinals’ backfield fell apart that year. That was the same year that the Cardinals’ quarterback and offensive line situations were both in absolute flux, which definitely impacted the running backs as well. Still, Williams was only a few shades above the worst runner in the league that year. He has the most well rounded game, but the most questions about his game.

"Shhh, My Common Sense is Tingling"

The section title here -– a spoof on the classic Spider-Man catchphrase by Marvel's “Merc with a Mouth”, Deadpool –- is the best way to summarize this group of runners. There is nothing but upside among these players, and I mean that in the most literal sense. McFadden and Williams appear too fragile to carry the load, and Dunbar and Randle both have incomplete skill sets. The Cowboys have been rumored as one of the favorites to select a rookie runner in the first round of the NFL Draft in a few weeks, and the need for this is made very clear when we break down the numbers. The Cowboys’ offensive line can make stars out of most players, but I doubt they’ll be able to work that kind of magic with these odds and ends.