On Wednesday morning, the Dallas Cowboys announced that they were going to do what many had presumed they would going into this offseason: move on from running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Even when Elliott penned his six-year, $90 million extension—an absolute albatross of a contract—ahead of the 2019 season, it looked like a mistake on the Cowboys’ end. Running back was a position that was diminishing in value by the end of the 2010s as teams realized how much the production at the position diminished as players got older. Instead of following suit with that mentality, the Cowboys gave Elliott a monster deal in hopes that he’d be different—an outlier whose massive talent, even as he aged, would shine above other backs in the league. That, unfortunately for both the player and the team, has not been the case.
Since the first four years of his original rookie deal (not including the fifth-year option he played on in 2020), Elliott’s production has fallen off significantly. Three out of his first four years in the NFL included Pro Bowl nods along with two appearances on All-Pro teams, a third-place finish in MVP voting, an average of 4.6 yards per carry, and more than 96 rushing yards per game. In the three years since then, Elliott has averaged 4.0 yards per carry, fewer than 61 rushing yards per game, and hasn’t received any accolades for his performance on the field. That’s not ideal output for a guy poised to eat up $16 million in cap space per year for the next four years if he stuck around.
The Cowboys had an out with Elliott’s contract this offseason and have decided to take that road. The biggest question to come out of this situation now is how Dallas will handle their backfield moving forward. As of now, the two running backs remaining on the Cowboys’ roster are fifth-year Tony Pollard, who is playing on the franchise tag coming off of a Pro Bowl season that included more than 1,000 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and second-year Malik Davis.
Pollard has been fantastic over the past couple of years, but his long-term future is uncertain past this coming season. Even coming off of two great years, this may be the first year in which he’s the defined lead back in Dallas’ offense, and that fact makes even his short-term future uncertain. Whether he can continue to put up the numbers he has over the last couple of years in a potentially expanded role remains to be seen.
Davis is in a somewhat similar position. He shined in limited action during the 2022 season but as a former undrafted free agent, he’s set to become an exclusive rights free agent after the 2023 league year.
So the two big “sub-questions” to the backfield conundrum in Dallas are: a) Do the Cowboys view Pollard as a true long-term RB1? and b) Does the team have faith in Davis as a true RB2 to complement Pollard going forward? If the answer to either question is “no,” the Cowboys probably will have to explore younger options in the upcoming draft.
If that’s the case, then Texas running back prospect Bijan Robinson makes sense in a lot of ways. He’d give Dallas pretty much the exact skill set and high ceiling they hadn’t seen in Elliott for a few years—and it wouldn’t take much to convince the fan base on a move that keeps Robinson in Texas. But do the Cowboys really want to spend a first-round pick on a running back with other, more pressing needs on offense—particularly at wide receiver? Drafting Robinson would also put Pollard back in a complementary role, which is an awkward move after placing the franchise tag on him to keep him from joining another team as a near-surefire starter. It would also only further diminish Davis’ potential development after showing promise in his rookie year.
What makes the most sense for the Cowboys is to take a swing at a running back in the later rounds. Let Pollard have his chance to prove his worth and shine as the true RB1 in 2023, but give the backfield more solid depth behind him outside of Davis. Guys like Tulane’s Tyjae Spears and Texas(!) A&M product Devon Achane will likely be available in the later rounds and bring great depth as complementary pieces for Pollard in year one and hold potential RB1 upside in the future if Dallas needs it. Even Robinson’s backup at Texas, Roschon Johnson, could make a ton of sense for the Cowboys after Day 1 of the draft.
After letting go of Elliott, the Cowboys will need to answer some big questions about the future of their backfield before and during the 2023 season. Taking a young running back in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft this year could solve quite a few of those questions.
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