CANTON, OH - AUGUST 4: Running back Lance Dunbar #25 of the Dallas Cowboys beats a Miami Dolphins defender for a gain during the first quarter at Fawcett Stadium on August 4, 2013 in Canton, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Earlier this week, I started breaking down the prospects of a few players on the roster bubble in quarterback Alex Tanney and linebacker Brandon Magee. Today, I’m going to take a look at the potential contributions from running back Lance Dunbar. Although Dunbar isn’t on the roster bubble, it’s still interesting to project whether or not he can carry his initial preseason success into the regular season.
Dunbar is out for the time being with a sprained foot, but he sure looked impressive during his limited action. The shifty running back averaged 5.6 YPC on his eight rushes and caught all six of his targets for 83 yards, highlighted of course by the big 43-yard reception on which Dunbar fumbled the ball. I wouldn’t worry too much about the fumble unless it becomes a habit; what’s more important is that Dunbar is showing the sort of explosiveness that Joseph Randle doesn’t possess.
Coming out of North Texas, Dunbar was timed anywhere from the low-4.4s to the high 4.4s. Players with his small stature need speed. It’s basically a prerequisite at the running back position; backs in Dunbar’s range of speed have produced at over four times the rate of those as fast as Randle. Randle’s 4.63 time was really poor in isolation, but it’s especially poor when you consider that he’s just 204 pounds.
Supporters of Randle argue that he was productive in college, but that doesn’t really help his cause in leapfrogging Dunbar for No. 2 duties, for two reasons. First, Dunbar was productive as well, averaging 5.4 YPC, totaling 97 receptions, and scoring 49 times. In comparison, Randle averaged 5.5 YPC, caught 108 passes, and scored 43 times. Second, there’s almost no correlation between college production and NFL production at the running back position. Actually, college rushing touchdowns can explain exactly 0.3 percent of NFL touchdowns (or basically none of them).
It’s really Dunbar’s receiving ability that should have fans so excited. Bill Callahan figures to target his backs a whole lot more than Jason Garrett did, and we’ve already seen that this preseason; Dunbar’s six targets came on just 27 snaps. DeMarco Murray might steal some of those looks during the regular season, but Dunbar’s versatility is a huge plus.
While there are lots of preseason heroes who can’t translate their initial success to the regular season, I don’t think Dunbar is one of them. He’s a 23-year old back with 4.4 speed who, although undersized, is proving to be effective against a high level of competition.
Jonathan Bales is the founder of The DC Times. He writes for DallasCowboys.com and the New York Times. He's also the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft.