IRVING -- Phillip Tanner made the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted player last year, so he knows he has competition behind him.
But he is not ignoring it. He is embracing it.
He is talking to Lance Dunbar and Darrell Scott, the free-agent running backs the Cowboys signed to provide competition for Tanner as the No. 3 running back.
He made sure they knew what to do, what to expect and what to look for as the Cowboys went through their off-season work.
Last year, Tashard Choice and Felix Jones did the same for him.
"It's great to talk to them," Tanner said. "Dunbar, I saw him play in college. I played against him a lot. Scott, he's a great guy, too. No. 1 in the nation coming out of high school. So those are great guys. We sit down. I try to mentor them. By me helping them, it helps me in the long run."
It is part of making a case for yourself with the coaching staff. Under coach Jason Garrett, the Cowboys continually emphasize competition, self-improvement and team.
"They know that you have to compete against the guys in your room every day," running backs coach Skip Peete said. "At the same time, you have to be a very helpful teammate. If a rookie or a younger player asks you a question, you can't withhold information to try to keep that guy back. You have to help them become the best that they can be. At the end of the day, if we are all a lot better, then the team is better."
Which shows Tanner has a grasp of another characteristic the Cowboys like -- intelligence.
"He is a very smart, intelligent kid," Peete said. "I think football is extremely important to him. He seems to always have the right answer when a question may arise."
Tanner had the right answers last year.
The Dallas Kimball graduate came to the Cowboys as a free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, which played in the same conference as Dunbar's North Texas team. Tanner had 301 all-purpose yards in a 2009 game against UNT.
He scored 76 touchdowns in high school and 33 in college, so the Cowboys couldn't resist a look.
But he was still a long shot on a roster that included veterans Jones and Choice, third-round pick DeMarco Murray, and a practice-squad player from the year before, Lonyae Miller, who the Cowboys also liked.
"He didn't overwhelm anybody in his first impression," Garrett said of the 6-foot, 218-pound Tanner. "He was a productive player, and we just heard really good things about him as a person. What was most impressive about him was just picking things up.
"He clearly is very conscientious. We throw a lot of things at these guys. Sometimes they start playing hesitantly because they're not sure what they're doing. And that didn't happen a lot for him. He was able to kind of hang in there and keep fighting and handle the instillation and still go out there and play and show the player he is."
Tanner led the Cowboys in rushing in preseason last year, beating out Miller for the fourth running back spot. Choice was released in October, so Tanner moved up a spot, and he played in four games when Jones was out.
"It's an advantage and a disadvantage," Tanner said of having the edge of a year's experience. "I can't become complacent or settle. That's one thing I'm not going to do is get complacent. I'm going to do the things I did last year and even more -- showing up to meetings on time, sitting in the front row, taking notes about everything. Just become a better ballplayer all around.
"I can't be like, 'I made the team last year.' I still go out every day like I'm trying to make this team, which I am."
Tanner will have a head start in training camp next month. But that is all, Peete said. Just a head start.
"Like we tell them, once they arrive, we are looking to replace them," Peete said. "As soon as they get here, we are looking if we can improve at this position. 'Who is better than this guy?' That's kind of what you do in evaluation and getting prepared for the next incoming class, whoever that may be. If we get so-and-so, will that help improve our team? They all know that and understand that."
Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7760