Who will be The Man in Cowboys' backfield?

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  • By Conor Orr and Gregg Rosenthal
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As they try to settle on a first-team running back, the Cowboys are facing a decision between veteran Darren McFadden and second-year man Joseph Randle. Around The NFL's Gregg Rosenthal and Conor Orr hit the film room, but they disagree on which guy should be The Man.

Why Joseph Randle needs to be the Cowboys' starting RB

Joseph Randle is not the runner you think he is. He didn't just scarf up DeMarco Murray's leftovers, and he's not just a situational back that only succeeded because of the Dallas offensive line. Randle has moves, and he's tougher than his reputation.

Darren McFadden is precisely the runner you think he is, despite what my friend Conor Orr will surely tell you below. He's an injury-prone back that lost his explosiveness in 2011. He's a straight ahead runner who can't make defenders miss, and no longer has the exceptional physical gifts that got him drafted in 2008. Take away the big name, and McFadden is just a guy at this stage of his career.

Randle has the potential for much more. His outrageous 6.7 yards-per-carry last season has been downplayed because he had a few big runs through canyon-sized holes. Two counters to that: 1) Randle's long speed shouldn't be held against him. 2) Some of his best runs were three- or seven-yard gains where he broke tackles.

Watching Randle's 55 touches last season on NFL Game Rewind was a revelation. He looks like a slight runner, but he's 210 pounds and does not go down at first contact. McFadden is far easier to tackle. So many of Randle's best runs came when he was hit early, sometimes in the backfield, and he fought for positive yardage. He finishes runs and breaks tackles in the open field. I was stunned to see that he could be such a tough runner.

The third-year player's explosiveness is even more obvious. (Even when it's not used to pick up cologne and underwear.) He changes directions well, makes defenders miss in tight spaces, and can dart through small holes. Lateral juice is one of the toughest things to find in running backs, and one of the clearest indicators of success at the pro level. It's all on display on the touchdown above. The jump cut on the play above is also typical of what he does. He explodes to the outside, cuts back in to make Kam Chancellor miss, and then finishes the run after contact.

The Cowboys chose not to take a running back in the draft or make a big splash at the position in free agency. Perhaps it's because they have faith in Randle based on his film. He looks like a difference maker, someone that would excel if given a bigger role. There has been a theory that Randle faced few men "in the box" compared to Murray or in garbage time, but the stats don't support that. More than 70 percent of his runs came against a base defense, and only five came in garbage time according to Pro FootballFocus. Randle earned the yards he gained.

McFadden hasn't gained more than 3.4 yards-per-carry since 2011, and has only topped 155 carries twice in his career. Latavius Murray showed last year it wasn't all the Oakland line's fault. In a best-case scenario, McFadden is going to split reps with Randle.

There's no guarantee that Randle will hold up physically with an increased workload. But he showed last season that he is worthy of the chance for a much bigger role. Perhaps Randle will wind up sharing carries with a veteran to be named later that is picked up off waivers in training camp. But the Cowboys aren't going anywhere if they give McFadden 200 touches. Randle is easily the best option on the roster. --Gregg Rosenthal

Why Darren McFadden should be The Man

For the purpose of this exercise, can we all truly immerse ourselves in a fantasy world where McFadden isn't hampered by lower body injuries? Having chosen not to read Gregg's piece on Randle, I'm assuming that is the direction his snide commentary is headed. Then again, Gregg is living in a fantasy world of his own by suggesting that Randle is the better option at running back.

What people don't seem to understand about McFadden is that he's a fantastically practical north and south runner who, despite a pronounced lack of flash at his older age, makes a hard, solid cut on almost every run and sticks with it. Behind Dallas' offensive line, that might just be enough, and in Dallas' wide zone scheme, it's often rewarded. DeMarco Murray was fantastic and added a certain amount of panache to the position. McFadden's yards will be far less graceful.

When I watched his 2014 carries on film, I saw a running back that was still a little hesitant to throw his body into the fire in front of him, then again he never really got the amount of carries a workhorse needs to get warmed up. Oakland's offensive line, while promising, did not impress me with their ability to get second-level and clear out linebackers. I felt like it turned McFadden into more of a scavenger, which, in games like his 18-carry, 59-yard performance against the Patriots, kept Oakland hanging around.

Admittedly, there were times that he seemed surprised if he broke free. Against the Chargers, one of his longer runs of the season was on a beautifully executed draw by Derek Carr on a third-and-8. McFadden was at the second-level by the time many of San Diego's defenders realized it wasn't a pass, but McFadden banged into one of his offensive linemen.

As he got warm in that game, he started making some pretty phenomenal plays, like a lengthy run to the outside where he beat a charging defender coming free off a missed pull block.

Runs like the draw play, I'm willing to chalk up to relative inexperience with a solid offensive line and quarterback who can remove defenders from the box. What I was searching for in his 2014 tape was vision and instinctiveness; something beyond the incredible set of God-given skills he has, and I believe I found it.

Running behind Dallas' offensive line will be a bit unprecedented, assuming that La'el Collins is the player we think he'll be, which is why I wouldn't be surprised if Randle is almost as productive.-- Conor Orr

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses Dez Bryant's contract situation and ranks the best backfields for the 2015 season. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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