On Wednesday morning, the Dallas Cowboys announced they were going to do what many had assumed they would do this offseason: move from running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Even when Elliott signed his six-year, $90 million extension — an absolute albatross of a contract — before the 2019 season, it looked like a mistake on the part of the Cowboys. Running back was a position that was declining in value in the late 2010s as teams realized how production at the position dwindled as players aged. Instead of going with the flow with that mentality, the Cowboys gave Elliott a monster contract in hopes he would be different – an outlier whose massive talent, even as he got older, would shine above other fullbacks. of the league. This, unfortunately for the player and the team, has not been the case.
Since the first four years of his original rookie contract (not including the fifth-year option he played on in 2020), Elliott’s output has dropped significantly. Three of his first four years in the NFL included Pro Bowl nods as well as two appearances on All-Pro teams, a third-place finish in MVP voting, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and over 96 yards rushing. ground per game. Over the next three years, Elliott averaged 4.0 yards per carry, less than 61 rushing yards per game, and received no accolades for his performance on the field. Not an ideal exit for a guy about to eat up $16 million of ceiling space a year for the next four years if he stayed.
The Cowboys had an exit with Elliott’s contract this offseason and decided to take that route. The biggest question to come out of this situation now is how Dallas will handle its backfield going forward. Currently, the two remaining running backs on the Cowboys roster are fifth-year Tony Pollard, who plays on the franchise label coming off a Pro Bowl season that included over 1,000 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and sophomore Malik Davis.
Pollard has been fantastic over the past two years, but his long-term future is uncertain beyond the coming season. Even after two great years, this may be the first year he’s been the definite leader of Dallas’ offense, and that fact makes even his near-term future uncertain. It remains to be seen if he can continue to post the numbers he has over the past two years in a potentially expanded role.
Davis is in a somewhat similar position. He shone in limited action during the 2022 season, but as a former undrafted free agent, he is set to become an exclusive free agent after the league year 2023.
So the two big “sub-questions” of the Dallas backfield conundrum are: a) Do the Cowboys see Pollard as a true long-term RB1? and b) Does the team have confidence in Davis as a true RB2 to complement Pollard in the future? If the answer to either question is “no,” the Cowboys will likely have to explore younger options in the next draft.
If so, then the Texas running back’s prospect Sesame Robinson makes sense in many ways. He would give Dallas pretty much the exact skills and high ceiling they haven’t seen in Elliott in a few years – and it wouldn’t take much to convince the fanbase of a move that keeps Robinson in the game. Texas. But do the Cowboys really want to dedicate a first-round pick to a running back with other more pressing needs on offense, especially at wide receiver? Robinson’s drafting would also put Pollard back in a complementary role, which is a tricky move after placing the franchise tag on him to prevent him from joining another team as a nearly foolproof starter. This would only further diminish Davis’ potential development after showing promise in his freshman year.
What makes the most sense for the Cowboys is hitting a running back in the final rounds. Let Pollard have his chance to prove his worth and shine as a true RB1 in 2023, but give the backfield more solid depth behind him outside of Davis. Guys like Tulane Tyjae spear and Texas (!) A&M Product Devon Achane will likely be available in later rounds and provide great depth as add-ons for Pollard in year one and maintain RB1 potential going forward if Dallas needs it. Even the backup of Robinson in Texas, Roschon-Johnsoncould make a lot of sense for the Cowboys after day one of the draft.
After letting go of Elliott, the Cowboys will have to answer some big questions about the future of their backfield heading into and into the 2023 season. Taking a young running back into the mid and late draft this year could solve many of those issues.