The Cowboys RB situation is murky at the moment and I am trying to sort out which of the quartet they currently have in their stable is the most likely to emerge as their leading rusher in 2015. Darren McFadden has the largest body of work in the NFL and there are two others that we know quite well as Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle have played their entire careers in Dallas.
Personally, I don't believe McFadden is a #1 anymore, based on his 3 year streak of averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry over nearly 500 runs. Now, it is possible that he was just held down by a poor offensive line in Oakland, but that is a very discouraging trend. 2011 was a very long time ago.
Dunbar and Randle are both interesting in their own ways, but Dunbar will always be a change-up back that is just too small (195 lbs) to be considered for more than that. Randle has the best chance, but his habits of self-sabotage are certainly not enough to evoke waves of belief from the public.
Between now and camp, I will try to break down all 3 of their resumes with a similar post to this one, but this is dedicated to the 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft out of Virginia Tech, Ryan Williams.
Williams is one of those players who might simply just never be healthy enough to realize his potential, but he has the ultimate attribute of those who get us all excited - he flashes high-level ability on a regular basis. He looks the part. If only his body could withstand the NFL punishment. If it could, runs like this would be available every time he touches the ball:
Above, you see the acceleration, the strength, the explosiveness, and the wiggle that you want to see in a RB at this level. He darts through a hole with fine vision and then blows through a weak arm tackle attempt to find his way into the secondary. At that point, he sees a safety in space and tries to run him right over by getting low and powering through for a 14-yard smash.
And yet, after being taken in the 2011 draft, we sit here in the summer of 2015 waiting for his career to leave the station. What gives? Evidently, his body. A patella tendon here, a shoulder there, and many more ailments have kept him from becoming a force to be reckoned with. In 3 seasons in Arizona, he played in 5 games. Then, last season (2014) he spent the whole year on the Cowboys practice squad, despite dazzling us in August.
Then, in January, they signed him to a 2-year deal that covers 2015 and 2016. So, clearly, they see something. They are interested in him sorting out all of this ability and getting his body to a level where it can handle what the sports asks of it. And this belief has made many of you think he might be the guy to emerge when the dust settles.
Let's go back to the 2011 draft, where the guys at Ourlads draft guide wrote him up like this:
Virginia Tech, 5093 212 4.61. Junior entry. Started 18 games in his career. Played in only five games last season due to a hamstring injury. Breakout year was his redshirt freshman year in 2009 when he rushed for 1655 yards and 21 TDs. Runs low where he gives very little hitting surface for the defense. Natural instincts and feel for running the ball. Finishes his runs. Can make a defender miss by power or shake in the open field. A feature runner who has good inside vision and the ability to create positive yardage on poorly blocked plays. The Hokies use both the spread and I-formation. Presses the hole and accelerates through the hole with good body lean, strength, and power. Good contact balance and run after first contact. Gets downhill quickly off tackle on the toss sweeps. Flashes a burst around the edge. Usually schemed to get outside. Has caught only 30 passes in his career, but is a natural hand catcher. Wants the ball at crunch time. Question ball security and durability issues. 2010 stats: 477 yards, 4.3 ypc, 10 receptions, 10 TDs. OSR:13/36. Second/third round. (A-30 3/4, H-9, BP-19, SS-4.18).
I think they did a pretty nice job of nailing this report. As I looked at him from his work in the 2014 preseason, I tend to agree with most of it - as emphasized with underlines.
After looking hard at the preseason games against the Ravens and Dolphins, I wanted to show you him in a number of situations. Here is what we have:
Man Blocking - G Power
The Cowboys developed into a team last year that was constantly switching back and forth between man and zone blocking. They were very successful at pulling OL around the corner and destroying defenders at the point of attack. This requires a bit more from a RB as he has to control his speed and wait for the guards to determine his path. Here is Williams in that setting:
There wasn't much there, but he cut back inside and found 7 yards on a play that might have gone for nothing if he wasn't as elusive and determined. A very nice job for a play that wasn't blocked well.
Here, in a goal-line situation, he also demonstrated a nice feel for his run as he waits for the guard to get out to the edge, then gets small and burrows into the end zone. He is very good at finding yards with the ball.
While the Cowboys enjoy man-blocking more and more, the zone runs are still the bread and butter. Here are a few of those:
There is that burst. No hesitation. Once he sees a crease he is at top speed and into the secondary in the blink of an eye. This, again, is top shelf stuff. He is small, but strong. Keep in mind in all of these runs he is not working with a Cowboys OL. He is working with those who were on the line in the 4th Quarter - mostly all cut last August.
And then there is this inside zone that he bounces out, runs over a safety, and explodes again for a huge 27-yard run that really put him on the map. Look how low the safety is and then see Williams actually go down and match the pad-level while hardly breaking stride. Magnificent work.
If we want a versatile back, we need someone comfortable catching the ball. So, is Williams passable at that? Easily.
I really think he actually looks more comfortable as a receiver than anything we have seen around here in a while. On 3rd downs, you can dump him the ball and he will find the sticks in space with that explosion, elusiveness, and wiggle that he offers. This might be a real factor and he might provide the open-field ability of Dunbar, but with a versatility that can run inside or outside as well.
Here is another one. 3rd and 7, simple release route and the chains move. Quite a weapon.
OK. Here is the issue. Aside from health, the Cowboys consider the RB position a spot where the RB "must be trusted". This means, you have an assignment in passing situations: Can you A) find that right guy to block and B) get him blocked.
Invariably, when visiting with the coaches or scouts about Williams, it always comes back to this topic. Even more so than durability, it is the dreaded question of whether he can be trusted to see a blitz-protection situation like the QB and OL do, and then, at 5'9, 207, can he get a blitzing LB or Safety blocked. Without question, the biggest attribute that made DeMarco Murray beloved in that huddle is that he routinely passed this test with flying colors. He knew who to block and how to block them.
Williams has one way to get LBs blocked - and that is to go low with the chop. Here he does it well. No problems.
Here is another one below where he does it again. Goes low on a LB. Now, you are saying, what is the problem? Well, this is a sample size issue. If he is a regular and teams see that when he is in there, his only plan is to go low, then they have counter moves to work around that. There are not many RBs, who do not take you on with a shoulder on their feet, who can pull off this 1 technique consistently. LBs are too athletic and will just leap over. Also, cutting low and running into thighs and knees are not a fantastic way to stay healthy. Those are big bruise moments.
Now, the play below is tough to see, but watch 34 choose the wrong gap and over-run the LB he is supposed to get. You can't see it, but Dustin Vaughan gets hit pretty hard here as he throws. That is really the test. A blitzing LB on both A-gaps of the center. The RB gets the nearest one, straight-up. But, for a moment, he thought he had to get the other one (on the opposite A-gap). This confusion goes back to their questions of whether he always knows where he is supposed to be and can be trusted to simply be there when teams are trying to confuse him in huge spots.
So, there is a look at Williams. I think he is very good with the ball in his hands and a dynamic play-maker.
But, can he stay healthy? There are many that don't believe he can.
And can he earn the trust of the offensive brain trust to be that guy who knows who to block and more importantly, how to block them? You or I could learn the protection schemes, but we aren't blocking Mychal Kendricks or Bobby Wagner if they run through an open A-gap. Knowing where to be is only half the battle. Then, without cut-blocking every time, can he stand and deliver a shoulder? We have seen McFadden do it. We have even seen Randle do it.
But, the key to Williams stepping up and being counted in August will be his ability to pass those tests. Stay healthy and block your man. Because he is not a big special teams guy (or really a special teams guy, at all), he has to be better than Dunbar and Randle at all RB duties. Those two, at worst, can be on all of the special teams. So, he better be able to master blitz-pickups.
A fascinating player and one who drips with upside. But, unfortunately, his time is running short. He is now 25 years old, 4 drafts removed from his rookie year, and this camp may be his biggest yet.
Can't wait to see what he is able to do this summer to try to get in this mix.
Have a question for Bob? Ask it here for his chat at 4 p.m. Wednesday.