Steve Slaton used to be good. I mean – really, really good. His 2008 rookie campaign was so outstanding that he finished sixth in the league with 1,282 rushing yards, beating out other rookies, such as Chris Johnson and Matt Forte. Slaton also compiled 377 receiving yards and 10 total touchdowns.
He was – in a word – beastly. His breakaway speed allotted him gains of 20+ yards 13 times on the ground, tied for third with Clinton Portis and behind only Adrian Peterson and DeAngelo Williams. He was fantastic in the open field, showcasing his cutting ability. And, he showed great hands as a receiver.
Before the 2009 season began, Slaton was a solid late first-round or early second-round fantasy football pick. Fumbles and a season-ending neck injury were the obvious reasons for his benching and unproductive year. But how do you explain the fact that he only averaged 3.3 yards per carry (down 1.5 from 2008), never accumulated more than 76 rushing yards in a game, and only had three 20+ yard rushing gains?
Slaton bulked up in the offseason and added 15-20 pounds of muscle for durability. He reported to camp at 215 pounds, up 18 from his combine weight of 197. The extra weight caused him to lose his speed and quick cutting ability – things that made him so effective in his rookie season.
Felix Jones came out of Arkansas averaging 7.66 yards per carry in his three years, second all-time in the NCAA only to Army’s Glenn Davis, who averaged 8.26 yards per carry (minimum 350 attempts). Jones’s speed, explosiveness, great hands, versatility, and elusiveness in the open field made him a desirable commodity in the draft.
Although he backed up Marion Barber in Jones’s first two seasons, his 5.9 yards per carry average in 2009 was the highest in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys entered 2010 vowing to give Jones a heavier workload and possible featured back status.
Jones, in turn, put on a few pounds of muscle to bring his weight to 220. He has yet to play a full season in the NFL, so the weight gain was meant to bulk his body up for the hits he would take with more touches.
However, the result has been less than stellar. Through eight games, Jones has only tallied 302 yards. Although his yards per carry average is 4.1, the number is actually inflated from a 15-carry, 109-yard performance against Tennessee in Week 5. If you take out the Titans game, Jones’s best performance is a 7-carry, 43-yard day against the Houston Texans in Week 3.
*The above statistics have been compiled by Playerfilter, a fantastic statistical website that tells you nearly everything you could possibly ever want to know about the NFL. You can even sort the data by clicking on the categories above. Try it out!*
As you can see, Jones is getting almost the same number of carries in 2010 as he did in 2009 per game (so much for being the featured back). However, his production has greatly declined. Even if he plays in all 16 games, he’s on pace to finish with less yards than he did in 2009 when he only played in 14 games.
The Cowboys rank second-to-last in the league in rushing with 605 total yards. Whether Jones’s deficiencies this year are a result of a terrible offensive line, terrible playcalling, or just terrible Jones is difficult to say.
Jones does not look as explosive as he did in his first two seasons. Is that a result of his weight gain (the reason for Slaton’s downfall)? In Jones’s defense, it’s nearly impossible to look explosive when you have no room to run. Barber has received nearly the same number of carries but is only averaging 3.0 yards per carry. At the very least, Jones is obviously the more effective back.
There will always be questions about whether he can be a featured back in the NFL until he actually shows that he can be. The Reggie Bush comparisons are silly, for the most part. While Jones and Bush have some similar skills, Jones outweighs Bush by 17 pounds and can actually run between the tackles, unlike Bush.
Are the Slaton comparisons silly as well? I think so. The Cowboys have a number of issues they need to address. They took care of Wade Phillips; now, they need to fix the offensive line somehow. Jones deserves a fair shot to be the featured back with an effective line that can open up holes for him and an offensive coordinator who is committed to the running game.
And, if Jones is clearly more effective than Barber, why are Jones and Barber still splitting carries?