After the Cowboys signed Alfred Morris in free agency, most observers felt the Cowboys had sufficiently addressed their need at the running back position. Morris, a two-time Pro Bowler who's had three 1,000-yard seasons would join former first-round pick Darren McFadden in the Cowboys backfield. McFadden himself was coming off a 1,000-yard season, achieved despite only becoming the starter after Week 6 last year.
Neither back was particularly sought after in free agency, but running behind one of the best O-lines in the league made both of them excellent values for the Cowboys. Add a healthy Tony Romo and a healthy Dez Bryant, and the Cowboys were good to go a running back.
Yet the Cowboys still went out and drafted Ezekiel Elliott with their fourth overall pick, leading to Pro Football Focus calling the Cowboys backfield one of the most improved in the NFL.
There was plenty of running back movement in free agency, as well as a lot of running backs drafted who can make an impact this year, but no team improved more at the position than Dallas. The Cowboys’ biggest headline of the offseason was the addition of Ezekiel Elliott. The former Buckeye recorded 1,050 yards after contact alone, fourth-best for college running backs last year. Adding Alfred Morris from Washington in free agency didn’t get as much attention, partially due to his down year in 2015, but in two of his four years in the league, he’s been among the top five running backs in forced missed tackles recorded. Throw in the return of Lance Dunbar, who was leading the league in yards per route run for running backs before his injury, and incumbent starter Darren McFadden might not have a role in the offense in 2016.
After drafting Elliott, the Cowboys were suddenly stacked at running back. So stacked, in fact, that other teams apparently came calling with trade offers during the draft.
"We got calls during the draft asking to trade for a couple of our running backs, and we just don't have that interest," Stephen Jones said on Thursday via Charean Williams of The Star-Telegram.
No details on what kind of pick or what kind of trade the Cowboys were offered, but their lack of interest in a trade underscores the value the Cowboys place on the position, even if it might be a little tight in the running back room during the season.
But what many may see as a luxury is a necessity for the Cowboys, who are looking to re-establish their identity as a hard-nosed, physical offense, an identity they forged in 2014 en route to a 12-4 record and a marked departure from the pass-happy offenses of the previous years.
Switching their offensive identity to a ball-control, ground-oriented attack, the Cowboys ran the ball 50.1 percent of the time, Murray set an NFL record with eight straight games of at least 100 yards to open the season, led the league in rushing yards by a wide margin, and earned OPY honors.
The new identity proved to be the cornerstone of the team’s success. Romo had the best and most efficient season of his career, leading the league in passer rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt, Dez Bryant led the league in touchdowns, and the defense benefited from playing with a lot of leads by recording an unheard-of amount of takeaways. But the Cowboys also ran DeMarco Murray into the ground, handing him the ball 392 times over their 16 games, and adding 57 receptions to that total.
With a stable of three running backs and five linemen making up one of the leading O-lines, the ground game should be purring along like vintage Hemi eight-cylinder.