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Cowboys' backfield competition among biggest taking shape

Just because the NFL continues to trend toward platoon backfields that doesn't mean employing the system is easy for coaches.

Plenty of teams will still use the preseason to determine the pecking order of their running back rotation and how to maximize that talent. While several clubs are banking on highly touted draft picks to anchor their respective ground game, others are hoping rookies can be complementary pieces.

The importance of the running game makes it vital to have a strong idea of who will emerge as the workhorses before the start of the season.

With that in mind, let's take a look at five of the most intriguing running back battles this preseason:

DALLAS COWBOYS: Felix Jones vs. Marion Barber and Tashard Choice

Jones is in line to be the starter after emerging as a big-play threat for the Cowboys last season when he averaged 5.9 yards per carry and popped off four runs of more than 40 yards. Although Jones will get a hefty workload as the starter, the Cowboys will still lean on Barber and Choice to provide the thump as complementary players. Barber, who earned a Pro Bowl berth in 2008, is slated to reprise his role as the late-game closer for the team. But he will still see significant carries as the team's short-yardage/goal-line specialist. Choice is an underrated runner with the skills to fill in as a starter or third-down back in the Cowboys' multi-faceted offense.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS: Clinton Portis vs. Larry Johnson and Willie Parker

The Redskins' reincarnation of the "Over the Hill Gang" features three backs around 30, but coach Mike Shanahan is hoping that one of his aging runners will take charge. Portis, who rushed for a career-worst 494 yards in just eight games last season, has the inside track. Portis' familiarity with Shanahan's system from their days together in Denver makes him the overwhelming favorite, but he must hold off challenges from Johnson and Parker. Johnson, a two-time Pro Bowler, hasn't topped the 1,000-yard mark in four seasons, but is a one-cut runner who is ideally suited to play in the team's new zone-based scheme. If he can rediscover his previous form, he could give the Redskins a big runner to pound between the tackles. Parker could be a situational contributor, but nagging injuries have eroded some of his explosiveness and he might not be the perimeter threat he once was in Pittsburgh.

Crowded backfield in Buffalo
The running back picture in Buffalo is also uncertain. Bucky Brooks examines how new coach Chan Gailey will lean on a trio of backs to ease the transition. More ...

HOUSTON TEXANS: Arian Foster vs. Steve Slaton and Ben Tate

Foster is working with the starters heading into camp, but he will have to hold off Slaton and Tate. While Foster gives the team a physical presence, he must prove his strong performance to end last season (Foster rushed for 216 yards in the final two games) wasn't a fluke. Slaton, who rushed for 1,282 yards as a rookie in 2008, is looking to rebound after a sub-par season due to injuries. He also had issues holding onto the ball. Tate, a second-round pick, has the skills to be a three-down back. As a rugged runner with surprising receiving skills, the rookie could be the ideal candidate to anchor the ground attack.

CLEVELAND BROWNS: Jerome Harrison vs. Montario Hardesty

Harrison made a strong case to be the featured back after rushing for 561 yards in the final three games, including a 286-yard performance against the Kansas City Chiefs that ranks as the third-highest single-game total in NFL history. In spite of his outstanding production down the stretch, Harrison will have to fend off Hardesty, the team's second-round pick. Given Hardesty's impressive size and athleticism, Harrison could find himself relegated to a change-of-pace back.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS: Julius Jones vs. Justin Forsett

The Seahawks garnered a lot of attention for their draft day acquisitions of LenDale White and Leon Washington, but neither will open the season as the starter (White has since been released, and Washington is still recovering from a fractured leg). So, the competition comes down to the incumbent, Jones, and Forsett, an underrated player. While Jones' experience would appear to give him the nod over Forsett, the fact that he has averaged less than 50 yards per game since signing with the Seahawks two seasons ago makes his grip on the job tenuous at best. Forsett opened up eyes by averaging an impressive 5.4 yards per carry last season and topped the 100-yard mark both times he logged 17 or more carries. It should come as no surprise to see Forsett emerge as the starter by the end of camp.

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