Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
Barber or Jones? Jones or Barber? Double J or Marion the Third? With the possible exception of Tony Romo and Carrie Underwood, no Dallas couple generates as much discussion as the Cowboys' two young running backs. With Bill Parcells basking in retirement (again), the slate should be wiped clean, and both players will be looking to stake their claim as the featured running back in new coordinator Jason Garrett's offense.
In offseason workouts thus far, Jones has worked with the first team ... when he's been around. Although he's attended minicamps, Jones elected to skip organized team activities in favor of working out on his own. That clearly can't endear him to new coach Wade Phillips, and it's particularly odd given that Jones is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
As you surely know, Barber exploded as a fantasy player last season, scoring 16 total touchdowns, including 14 on the ground. He scored in 11 of 16 games despite averaging only 8.5 carries per game. Jones wasn't a total slouch, as he posted his first 1,000-yard season, but he scored only four touchdowns and had just one 100-yard performance in the final 11 games of the regular season.
In fantasy terms, Barber kicked Jones' rear end all over the school yard last season. But who is the better player? Let's turn to the stat sheet to find out.
Last season, Jones averaged 4.1 yards per carry, while Barber's YPC was 4.8. That's a glaring difference, and not just for the obvious reasons. Barber actually had a handicap in this category because he received more carries in short-yardage situations. In fact, if you remove just the touchdowns from three yards out and in, Barber's YPC swells to 5.1, and Jones' ... well, he didn't score any short-yardage touchdowns.
One of the main reasons why Jones trails Barber in yards-per-carry is his propensity for getting stuffed behind the line of scrimmage. According to STATS Inc., Barber was stuffed just six times in 135 carries, and his .044 stuff percentage was the second-best mark in the NFL. In stark contrast, Jones was stuffed 26 times in 267 carries, producing a .097 rate that was among the very worst in the game.
Jones also averaged only 4.0 yards per carry on first-and-10 situations -- again, one of the very worst marks in the league. And for all of the talk about his big-play ability, Jones, in those 267 carries, had just five runs of 20 yards or more, one more than Barber (135 carries), Wali Lundy (124) and Vernand Morency (91).
The line being spun by Jones -- and his supporters -- is that Parcells forced him to "run like a robot," and didn't allow him to use his running instincts. Whether it would be a good or bad thing if Jones started "running with his instincts" is open for debate, but this sure sounds like sour grapes. Remember, it was Parcells who made the decision to pass on Steven Jackson and draft (many would say overdraft) Jones in the second round in 2004.
The bottom line here is that Barber is a better, more complete running back than Jones. On an even playing field, which you'd expect under a new head coach, the cream should rise to the top. Even if it doesn't, Barber should still get the bulk of the goal-line carries. Another 16-touchdown season is unlikely, but double-digit scores is a reasonable expectation, and if he ends up getting the lion's share of the work, he could easily be a top-10 performer in fantasy. As for Jones, it's really difficult to imagine him doing better than 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns even in a best-case scenario.
Hmm ... I can almost sense the ESPN Conversation:
"OK Ravitz, we get it. Barber is the better player, and the one with higher ceiling, and the one with less risk, and the one who helps old ladies across the street. So why, in the name of Tony Dorsett did you draft Jones in the ESPN Fantasy Football magazine mock?"
I'm glad you asked. In our preseason running back rankings, Barber came in at No. 21, and Jones was ranked 33. In our mock draft, Barber went in Round 3, 29th overall and 20th among running backs. I took Jones in Round 7, with the 78th overall pick, after 34 other running backs came off the board. To win a fantasy football league, you have to be lucky and good, and you can't afford to pass up value.
Barber should be very good this season, but you're going to have to pay full price to get him. Based on our league, taking Barber probably means passing up on someone like Carson Palmer, Antonio Gates or Donald Driver. Taking Jones means passing up Braylon Edwards, Chris Cooley or Baltimore's defense.
Without question, Barber is the better player, but it's possible that Jones might be the better value on draft day.
Nate Ravitz covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com