Cowboys position series: Running backs

The second in ESPNDallas.com’s 10-part position series.

Roster locks: DeMarco Murray, Joseph Randle

On the bubble: Lance Dunbar, Phillip Tanner, Kendial Lawrence

Long shots: None

What’s new? The Cowboys bid farewell to first-round bust Felix Jones while continuing to insist that he wasn’t a bad pick. Yet they believe they made an upgrade at the No. 2 back by selecting Oklahoma State’s Joseph Randle in the fifth round.

The Cowboys had a third-round grade on Randle, whose size (6-foot, 198 pounds), slashing style and versatility reminds them a lot of Murray.

Think that comparison is too optimistic? Check out their numbers while playing for Big 12 rivals.

Murray in four seasons at Oklahoma: 3,685 yards (4.9 per carry) and 50 TDs rushing; 157 catches for 1,571 yards and 10 TDs.

Randle in three seasons at Oklahoma State: 3,085 yards (5.5 per carry) and 40 TDs rushing; 108 catches for 917 yards and three TDs.

Unfortunately, Randle reminded the Cowboys of Murray for another reason during organized team activities and minicamp. He was sidelined by an injury, recovering from thumb surgery that he delayed so he could play in Oklahoma State’s bowl win.

That opened up more reps for the other rookie, Rockwall native Kendial Lawrence, an undrafted free agent who rushed for 1,025 yards and 12 touchdowns at Missouri last season. The shifty Lawrence has enough potential to be on the Cowboys’ payroll this season, whether it’s the 53-man roster or practice squad.

Camp competition: It’s hard to envision Dunbar losing the No. 3 job. He’s the quickest of the Cowboys’ backs and can help as a kick returner. Murray, among others, made a point of mentioning how much Dunbar had improved in his first NFL offseason.

Tanner is competing against Lawrence and players at other positions for a roster spot. Tanner, a Dallas Kimball product who made the team as an undrafted afterthought a couple of years ago, is unquestionably a Jason Garrett “right kind of guy.” He needs to be a special teams force and/or show better vision as a runner than he did last season to give himself job security.

2013 hope: Start with Murray staying healthy.

Murray’s guarantee that he’ll play 16 games is swell and all, but he made that made that statement while sitting out offseason workouts due to a hamstring injury. After durability questions caused him to drop to the third round, Murray has missed nine games in his first two NFL seasons.

If Randle is as good as the Cowboys’ scouts believe, his presence could help Murray stay fresh. The Cowboys wouldn’t need Murray to be a workhorse with Randle playing a third of the snaps.

We’ve all seen how good a healthy Murray can be when he has room to run. This is a back who racked up 601 yards on 72 carries during his first four games as the Cowboys’ feature back. It’s ridiculous to project those numbers over a full season, but it’s not a stretch to say that Murray has Pro Bowl potential with a clean bill of health and good blocking.

The Cowboys are counting on the Bedlam Backfield to be one of the NFC’s better one-two punches with Murray as the headliner. And don’t count out Dunbar making a handful of impact plays in a change-of-pace role that exhibits his dynamic explosiveness in carefully selected small doses.

Future forecast: The Cowboys should be set at running back for the next two seasons. They’ll have a decision to make on Murray when his rookie deal expires after 2014.

There are some in the organization who believe that only the special tailbacks should get significant second contracts in today’s NFL. Murray has two seasons to prove that he’s in that class.

Of course, Randle’s performance in those two seasons could also affect what the Cowboys are willing to offer Murray. If he has proven he’s ready to be the lead horse, perhaps the Cowboys draft another backup and move on.

One thing is for sure: This position shouldn’t be a priority next offseason.