The Dallas Cowboys’ offseason has been filled with plenty of buzz and positive coach-speak surrounding third-year running back Lance Dunbar. The bandwagon is filling up so fast that you might think that Dunbar is competing for a featured role. Murray and the coaches have made it clear that he’s only a compliment, but in the new offensive scheme he will have a greater opportunity than most complimentary backs. Every offseason we are tasked with deciphering coach-speak from fact, and in Dunbar’s case I believe that the hype will be realized.
Dunbar adds another dimension to the offense with his lateral agility, lateral explosion, and overall speed. Entering the NFL, Dunbar’s measurements checked in at 5-foot-8 and 205 pounds with a 4.47 40-yard-dash, 35-inch vertical, and strong numbers in both the broad jump and 3-cone drills. Lead back DeMarco Murray has taken note of his talent and need for an offensive role.
"But I definitely know and feel he needs to get some touches, get on the field and make some things happen, because he’s definitely a spark for our team," Murray said.
Dunbar first caught my eye against the Raiders last season with his ability to explosively accelerate through his cuts. Check it for yourself in this highlight clip. Although his production at the NFL has been capped by injuries, Dunbar was an elite producer at the collegiate level. He accumulated 4,224 rushing yards, 1,033 receiving yards, and 49 combined touchdowns while playing at North Texas.
Dunbar’s quickest path to opportunity will be to establish himself as a threat in space as not only a runner but also a receiver. Based on his film study of Scott Linehan’s offenses in Detroit, Dunbar is confident that the opportunity will be there.
"It’s pretty exciting," Dunbar said. "There’s a lot of screens and stuff. He got them the ball in space."
If the past is any indication of the future, Dunbar is right. After conducting my own research on running back involvement in the passing game, I realized the extent to which Linehan utilizes his backs as receivers. In 2013 only two teams finished with more running back targets than the Lions who attempted 147 passes to their backs. The backs also finished with the fifth-highest total target percentage (targets divided by the team’s total pass attempts), with 23.19 percent.
You won’t need to worry about all of those targets going to Murray either. Linehan utilizes a two back system. Last season, complimentary back Joique Bell finished with 64 targets which was good for over 10 percent of his team’s total targets. He did this despite being on the field for over 50 percent of his team’s snaps in just five games. Research from Rich Hribar proves that last season was not a fluke. During Linehan’s entire tenure with Detroit, running backs accounted for 46.8 percent of all receptions and the second back averaged 51 targets per season.
When Cowboys running backs coach Gary Brown spoke about Dunbar, clues about Dunbar’s expanded role continued to surface.
"Everybody would like to have a guy like Dunbar. Once you find one, you’ve got to find things for him to do and you’ve got to make sure that he’s involved in the gameplan," Brown said. "He brings a whole different dimension, a whole different vibe in our room as far as what he does and we’re looking forward to using him as a weapon as well."
It’s not difficult to figure out why Brown considers Dunbar a player that every team would like to have. Last season Dunbar made the most of his 37 touches on offense by racking up 209 yards. According to Pro Football Focus, Dunbar had an incredible 3.77 Yco/Att (yards after contact per attempt), which was good for sixth-most in the NFL. He also registered our fifth-best elusive rating (112.0), while adding 11 missed tackles despite his limited touches.
It seems clear that his overall role will expand, but coaches tend to keep how they plan to utilize their players much closer to the vest. That didn’t stop Brown from introducing us to potential ways that he can be used.
"Well, he’s a guy that’s going to be a complete weapon. We can line him up anywhere on the team-tailback spot, at the wide receiver spot, in the slot," Brown said.
Dunbar’s role is set to expand and those around him are starting to get really excited. We can now add Murray to the list that includes Linehan, Brown, and writers Todd Archer and Bryan Broaddus who are around the team every day. So hop on the bandwagon now so you can still tell your friends that you predicted Dunbar’s breakout season before it happened.
Follow Dan Schneier on Twitter @DanSchneier_NFL. He will be tweeting out nuggets from OTAs and training camp all offseason long. You can also "Like" him on Facebook, or add him to your network through Google.