Instead of throwing the football all over the field as in seasons past, the Cowboys have instead made a serious committment to the running game. In fact, Phillips' goal is to finish in the top 10 in the league in running offense in 2009. That means much of training camp will be geared toward finding the best possible rotation to utilize the skills and abilities of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.
"We will work on [the running game] more than we have," Phillips told the San Antonio Express-News. "If you are going to do it, then you have got to commit to it."
The Cowboys finished an unimpressive 21st on the ground last season, averaging 107.7 yards per game. That was due in large part to the loss of Jones for much of the season due to hamstring and toe ailments. Barber was also limited down the stretch with an injured toe. Their absences did allow Choice to showcase his talents, which were evident against tough run defenses like the Eagles, Giants, Ravens and Steelers.
With Barber and Jones back at 100 percent and Choice slated for more work, the Cowboys could have one of the league's top backfields.
"Our running back situation is a heck of an asset," owner Jerry Jones said. "You let us line up with a couple of tight ends so that defense doesn't have the opportunity to stack it up on you, and they have to honor the pass, and that's Romo-friendly."
While the constructs of the depth chart remain a question mark, fantasy leaguers shouldn't be shocked to see Jones open this season as the starter. The explosive back out of Arkansas averaged an impressive 8.9 rushing yards per carry as a rookie and has a ton of sleeper potential heading into drafts. If Jones does in fact earn a starting role, it shouldn't be seen as a negative in terms of Barber's stock.
The bruising runner failed to produce in his first season as a featured back. His yards-per-carry average dropped from 4.8 yards to 3.7 last season, and his numbers were a major disappointment for owners down the stretch as he attempted to play through injuries. Barber was a far better fantasy back in a "closer" role, where he came off the bench and was used to pound worn-down defenses in the second half.
In two seasons with Julius Jones as the starter, "Marion the Barberian" posted a combined 67 receptions, 2,107 scrimmage yards and 28 total touchdowns. The shared workload helped him remain fresh and avoid injuries (he didn't miss a single game from 2006-07). His nose for the end zone and skills as a runner and receiver out of the backfield made him a tremendous option for owners.
As a result, Barber should still be seen as a viable first- or second-round selection even if he is "second" on the depth chart.
Choice will see the fewest carries of the threesome, but he's someone to watch in the preseason. Based on the success he found against a number of the league's top run defenses at the end of last season, he'll be worth a late-round pick as a No. 4 or 5 fantasy runner.
With a greater emphasis on the run, not to mention the loss of Owens, a decrease in production from Romo seems inevitable.
The talented quarterback will remain a viable fantasy starter across the board, but he has little chance to duplicate the 4,211 yards and 38 total touchdowns he produced during his breakout season in 2007. Instead, fantasy leaguers should expect Romo to record 3,500-4,000 passing yards and around 25 total touchdowns.
Those are still solid numbers, but they're not those of an elite quarterback.
News and notes
- » Patriots quarterback Tom Brady opened training camp on the field and appears to be back to 100 percent after reconstructive knee surgery. He did have a brace on his left knee, but that's not a major concern for a quarterback who isn't know for his mobility. While it's hard to envision a scenario where Brady would duplicate his incredible 2007 totals, there's no reason to believe he won't remain an elite quarterback. He's worth a second rounder.
- » The Raiders have come to terms on a contract with rookie wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey, signing him to a five-year deal. It's good news that he'll have a full training camp, but reports out of Oakland indicate that Johnnie Lee Higgins and Chaz Schilens will open the season atop the depth chart. In an offense that will be heavily based on the run, Heyward-Bey will be hard pressed to make a fantasy impact. He's worth little more than a late flier.
- » The San Diego Union-Tribune reports Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson is expected to avoid NFL discipline after a recent appeal to a judge's ruling in his DUI case. That makes Jackson, who is coming off his best season as a pro, a much safer pick in all fantasy drafts. He's also in a contract year, which only adds to his overall value. While he can be a bit inconsistent, Jackson should still be considered a No. 2 fantasy wideout.
- » Bears coach Lovie Smith told the Chicago Sun-Times that he's "excited about Greg Olsen and his role" for this season. A strong breakout candidate, Olsen will no doubt become a popular target for Jay Cutler in the team's pass attack. In fact, he could be his best and most reliable option in an offense loaded with inexperienced and mediocre wide receivers. Olsen should now be considered a potential top-five fantasy tight end in all formats.
- » Chiefs running back Larry Johnson is reportedly excited about the team's new regime, led by GM Scott Pioli and coach Todd Haley. Of course, L.J. might not have the same opinion based on what could be a lesser role in Haley's spread offense. While he still has value as a No. 2 fantasy back because he'll be a featured option and see goal-line work, Johnson's yardage totals could be inconsistent. He could fall into the fifth or sixth round.