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Cowboys’ Down-Roster Battles: Who Will Be The Last Running Back To Make The Roster?

Training camp practices start July 24th. While a lot of the team is set, there should be some heavy competition for those last slots. We’re doing a 10-part series to preview what those battles might look like.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys Rookie Minicamp Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The first place to look if you are thinking about Cowboys’ roster battles is our own 2017 Dallas Cowboys Interactive Roster Builder. This handy tool is kept up to date by OCC, and is well worth the visit because it shows that roster battles aren’t always within position groups, but across groups. For example, keeping a third quarterback or a tenth or eleventh defensive lineman means going light somewhere else. We also know that roster churn is a year round business, so there are likely to be some new names by training camp, and potentially even after final cut down day. With that caveat, let’s begin.

Part V - Running Back

These are the players currently on the roster. We’ll lead with the locks, followed by the probables, then get to the fight for the last spot.

Locks

  • Ezekiel Elliott. What can you say about Zeke? He came into the NFL with absurdly high expectations, and then he exceeded them! Check out the end-of-season Dak and Zeke Report and its links to the weekly rundown of Zeke’s excellence. After the first week, when he played, he rushed for at least 80 yards in every game and was held under four yards per carry only once over that 14-game span. Was the offense Dak Prescott’s or Zeke Elliott’s? It was both, as they complemented each other perfectly.
  • Darren McFadden. Signed to a one-year, $980,000 contract, McFadden is the second lock among Cowboys’ running backs. He’s cheaper than Alfred Morris, much more complete as a back, and was the Cowboys’ leading rusher just two years ago. He can protect the quarterback, catch out of the backfield, hit the big play, convert short-yardage runs, and his preference for man-blocking schemes allows the Cowboys to mix up their front to keep defenses guessing.
  • Keith Smith. We are going to mix in the fullbacks into this piece. Smith was the starting fullback last year. He played 134 snaps as a fullback, or 13% of the plays, just five fewer snaps than Lance Dunbar, who was second on the team to Zeke’s 713 snaps. But Smith, a former linebacker, was also a key member of the Cowboys’ special teams units, which helps keep him around.

Probables

There are no probables among the running backs.

Fighting For That Last Spot

In addition to carrying a fullback each of the last three years (they started the season with two last year), the Cowboys have kept four running backs on the roster. So there is certainly room for at least one more running back spot. There appear to be three guys fighting for that spot.

  • Alfred Morris. Morris is behind only Darren McFadden in career yards among the current Cowboys. But his days have been numbered since he was benched after Darren McFadden returned last last year. He’s not a special teams player, does not catch the ball well out of the backfield, and is not adept as a pass protector. His only possible role would be as a workhorse back if something were to happen to Zeke. But the Cowboys have Darren McFadden, and he’s proven capable of carrying the primary load. Morris is mostly likely to get cut, so the Cowboys can save $1.6 million in cap space, eating only $500,000.
  • Rod Smith. Listed last season as a fullback, he made the opening roster because of his special teams play. He lasted until November 3rd, when after injuries in the Cowboys’ secondary, he was cut to make room for Leon McFadden. He was re-signed to the practice squad two days later. In OTAs, the Cowboys used Smith as a tailback. Could he be kept as the third running back, given his special teams prowess?
  • Jahad Thomas. Thomas was signed as a UDFA after the draft this year. Both Danny Phantom and Cole Patterson among our front page writers took Thomas as their pet cat, so let’s see what Phantom has to say.

When you have Ezekiel Elliott as your workhorse running back, you want the ball in his hands as much as possible. That doesn't leave a lot of opportunities for other running backs, especially an undrafted free agent. But Thomas' skill set fits real well with what the Cowboys need. With no Lance Dunbar around, the team could use another receiving back to fill this role. Thomas is an excellent receiver, catching 33 passes for 418 yards with six touchdowns in 2016. And while he doesn't have that elite speed, his footwork is outstanding and makes him look faster than he really is. He's got excellent vision, and when you take into account the blocking he'll have in Dallas, he makes for an elusive runner. With another rookie, Ryan Switzer stealing half of Lucky Whitehead's return responsibilities, it would be easy to just plug Thomas in for the kick return part. He's played special teams all four years in college so he has that appeal as well.

Last year I selected Anthony Brown as my pet cat and besides his raw ability, I touched on his high character to max out his potential, as he had a degree in Organized Leadership and Supervision. For Thomas, it's his iron fortitude that impresses me. He was voted by his teammates to wear a single-digit number which is a sign of toughness inside the Temple program. And that's something Mr. Dunbar didn't have.

Analysis

With Zeke and McFadden as locks, the Cowboys have a superior lead back, and a versatile backup who can easily cover all the carries and receptions Zeke won’t get. There really isn’t a need for a third running back on the roster. Keith Smith is more than enough at fullback.

Still, it’s likely the Cowboys will take a developmental back, if for no other reason than that McFadden is only on a one-year deal, so the Cowboys might as well groom his replacement. Jahad Thomas is the one most likely to fill that role this season.

Overview Of The Offense

Now that we’ve finished this series on the offensive side, it’s worth doing a short recap.

Offensive line - likely eight, with Byron Bell and Emmett Cleary fighting for the last spot.

Wide receiver - likely five, with Brice Butler and Noah Brown vying for the last spot.

Tight end - three or four, depending on whether James Hanna and Geoff Swaim are healthy.

Quarterback - two most likely.

Running back - three for sure, with four possible.

That’s 21 to 23 roster spots for the offense, when 25 would balance the offense and defense. If that held, it would the fewest offensive players the Cowboys have taken in recent years. Since 2013, the Cowboys have taken less than 25 offensive players only once - in 2015. That could be welcome relief to the new defense, which has many rookies to assimilate. It’s possible the Cowboys’ won’t put such a squeeze on their offensive roster, but we haven’t suggested cutting anyone essential, nor anyone likely to get significant plays this year.

What this does suggest, however, is that the Cowboys could keep a ninth offensive lineman, and a fourth tight end, and still end up with 23, which would allow for 27 on defense. A 24th offensive player then might come down to a fourth running back/fullback or a sixth wide receiver.

Part I - Offensive Line

Part II - Wide Receiver

Part III - Tight End

Part IV - Quarterback

Part V - Running Back

Part VI - Defensive Line

Part VII - Linebacker

Part VIII - Cornerback

Part IX - Safety

Part X - Special Teams