Durability is an understandable buzzword around Valley Ranch this offseason.
If not for a spate of injuries at several positions, the Dallas Cowboys firmly believe they would have made the playoffs in 2012. The linebacker corps was ravaged and lingering injuries to several running backs put too much of the burden on quarterback Tony Romo in too many close games.
Felix Jones has played a full 16-game regular season slate just twice during his first five NFL seasons. Injuries have prevented him from ever logging more than 185 carries and are a big reason he isn't expected to be re-signed as a free agent. Jones has been a decent complementary back, but the Cowboys can't afford an injury-plagued backup serving as the insurance policy behind DeMarco Murray, who has been healthy for only 17 of 32 games through his first two seasons.
"We need to have more balance on our offense and a healthy running back has a lot to do with that," Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said at the owners meetings in Phoenix. "When DeMarco has played for us the last couple of years we have been at our best on offense -- a more balanced attack. He just does a real good job for us running the football, catching the ball. A lot of things he brings to the offense just helps our team.
"But he has been out. We have to be honest with that. We need another guy."
Garrett said the team will "evaluate the situation" with Jones, but it appears pretty clear the Cowboys are heading in another direction.
The Cowboys like Lance Dunbar, a former undrafted free agent who has shown good instincts as a runner and solid hands out of the backfield. But he's also undersized at 5-feet-8 and 191 pounds -- certainly lacking the build to routinely handle 25 touches per game in the event Murray is banged up for a third consecutive season.
"We see him as more of a role player," said Garrett. "A guy we can hand the ball to. A guy we can play on third down, but you don't want to overdo just because of his size."
Don't expect the Cowboys to invest a first-round pick in a running back. First, there likely isn't a ballcarrier they'd deem worthy of their No. 18 overall selection. And there will be plenty of value in the middle rounds. Dallas currently holds selections in the second (47th overall), third (80th overall) and fourth (114th overall) rounds that could bring good value for a competent backup to Murray.
Top 100 running backs who could be available include North Carolina's Giovani Bernard (64th-ranked overall prospect by NFLDraftScout.com), UCLA's Johnathan Franklin (77th), Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle (83rd), Clemson speedster Andre Ellington (89th) and Wisconsin workhorse Montee Ball (93rd).
"What you want is you want the best player available. And having said that, we do believe that it's a physical game and you need to be durable," said Garrett. "You need to be able to hand the ball to someone a lot and him being able to withstand the pounding that you get as a running back in this league.
"We don't think you can have a guy who is fragile who just can't handle the physical demands of the position. You want a dynamic player certainly. You want a guy who is a great runner. You want a guy who in situations can block on third down, a guy who catch passes for you out of the back field and you want the best player. But we do understand the importance of having a bigger guy, a guy you can hand the ball too, a guy who can control the game a little bit for you."
That description could limit the Cowboys' interest in the 5-9, 202-pound Bernard and the 5-10, 205-pound Franklin, who several teams will likely value as second-round picks. Sleepers in the mid to late rounds who could fit Garrett's mold include Ball, Texas A&M's Christine Michael (5-10, 220) and Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (6-2, 230).
"We understand the physical demands. The importance of having another guy and even a third guy, we've lived that and many teams have over the last few years," said Garrett. "You've got to keep the backs coming, as they say, but DeMarco will be a big part of what we do, and him staying healthy will be critical."