Felix Jones can't shake comparisons

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Steven Jackson knows something about playing running back in the NFL.

Since being drafted in 2004 by the St. Louis Rams, Jackson has the third-most carries (1,824) and yards (7,788) in the NFL.

Jackson, who was at Cowboys Stadium on Tuesday as part of Nike's national media summit, doesn't necessarily like the dual-running back system. He thinks he's a dinosaur of some kind as one of the few backs who is the sole ball carrier on his team.

"It's insurance for a team. They will have at least one guy who will be healthy at the end of the season," Jackson said. "As time goes on, we see a team really prefers to have a franchise guy, and I try to be that guy and hold that torch for guys like Emmitt Smith, a franchise back who can do it all. He can run, catch and block, and I take great pride in knowing that I'm one of the last ones."

The Dallas Cowboys have sought such a lead dawg, if you will, since Smith left after the 2002 season.

The Cowboys currently have three backs who take care of business in Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice.

All three are unique in their own ways, but it is Jones, a first-round pick in 2008, who is the most scrutinized.

Yes, Barber, the starter, gets his share of criticism. Jones, however, is compared to a 2008 running back class that has some thinking the Cowboys made a mistake in drafting him.

Jones isn't solely at fault, because he's shared carries with Barber and Choice. He has 1,523 yards and only seven touchdowns on 292 career carries (a 5.2-yard average). But the comparisons are daunting.

Two running backs were drafted before the Cowboys took Jones at No. 22: former Arkansas teammate Darren McFadden and Jonathan Stewart. Both have more career yards and touchdowns than Jones.

Then there's Rashard Mendenhall, who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers after Jones at No. 23 and has more carries, yards and touchdowns than Jones.

Right after Mendenhall, the Tennessee Titans grabbed Chris Johnson, who already has two 1,000-yard seasons plus a 2,000-yard campaign to his credit.

Go deeper and look at Jamaal Charles, who last week signed an extension with the Kansas City Chiefs for five years worth $32.5 million. Charles, a third-round pick out of Texas, has rushed for 2,654 yards and 10 touchdowns in his career.

It gets sillier.

Peyton Hillis, a fullback at Arkansas who blocked for McFadden and Jones, was drafted in the seventh round by the Denver Broncos. He was traded along with a sixth-round pick to the Cleveland Browns for quarterback Brady Quinn this past spring. Hillis has rushed for 1,070 yards this season with 11 touchdowns.

Jones, while sharing the carries, has never rushed for 1,000 yards. Five running backs drafted after him in 2008 are now their teams' starters and have more career yards than Jones: Mendenhall, Johnson, Matt Forte, Ray Rice and Charles.

Jones has battled injuries, missing 12 career games, but even when healthy his carries have been limited at times. He didn't have a single carry his rookie year in a Week 4 game against the Washington Redskins, and he has 21 career games with fewer than 10 carries.

The Cowboys' front office loves Jones' speed and ability to make defenders miss in open spaces. He possesses good foot movement that allows him to plant and shift away from defenders at the line of scrimmage. He also is able to catch the ball out of the backfield and show good vision to scoot down the field.

Yet when you look at his season, Jones has only 572 yards with just one rushing touchdown, which came last week in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

While he possesses the talent to be an excellent back, the Cowboys just haven't seen it on a consistent basis.

Even Jones admits that his 2010 season, in which he has averaged 3.9 yards per carry, has not been to his liking.

"It can always be better," he said. "It can always be at a better level. I take that and grow from it and continue to use the different experiences I'm having on and off the field and continue to use that to get better in football."

Barber has missed the past two games with a calf injury, and his status for the home finale against Washington is uncertain. It would mean a third consecutive start for Jones, who has rushed for over 100 yards only once in a regular-season game.

With a strong finish to the 2010 season, Jones has the opportunity to show the Cowboys they can cut ties with Barber, who is due a $500,000 roster bonus on June 5, 2011.

Jones said he can't control the future, just the present, and Sunday will be another chance to do that. But every time he reaches the field, those comparisons start.

There was debate on draft day that the Cowboys should have taken Mendenhall over Jones. Before he was fired as Cowboys coach this season, Wade Phillips expressed that he liked the speed of Johnson and Charles.

It seems Jones can't get a break when it comes to comparisons of that 2008 running back class.

"Our class is one of the best classes that ever came out, as far as a running back group," Jones said. "It's a top-notch group. To be compared to those guys, it is a challenge. They're all doing great things and you have to keep working hard and believe in yourself [that] you can do better things than them."

Calvin Watkins covers the Cowboys for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his mailbag.