Ezekiel Elliott is the Dallas Cowboys starting running back. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about that. The team’s star running back has already eclipsed 2,600 yards in just 25 games for an impressive 104.6 yards per game average. With a fresh start ahead of him and a revamped offensive line, good things are lying ahead for Zeke in 2018.
But what about the other guys at the running back position? Sure, Elliott will take on a heavy workload, but the Cowboys will need someone else on the roster to give him a breather or as insurance should something happen that removes Zeke from the equation. With veteran Rod Smith, rookie Bo Scarbrough, and now recently added Darius Jackson all looking to earn a role on the team - the competition is fierce for the backup RB spot. Which of these players do you think makes the team? Well, let’s examine each one and see what they bring to the table.
Smith is a fan favorite in Dallas, but if you are a Ohio State Buckeyes fan, you might not feel so warm and fuzzy about him. Between academic problems, failing a drug test, and multiple suspensions - he was never able to get himself going, which contributed in him going undrafted in 2015. He signed with the Seattle Seahawks and only had two carries in his only game of action when he was activated after an injury to Marshawn Lynch. He was then released and quickly claimed by the Cowboys who had their own running back issues as Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden held down the fort that season. He played in 10 games with the Cowboys that year, but most of the action he saw was on special teams.
Despite having more talented players ahead of him on the depth chart, Smith continued to do whatever was needed to help the team. You want him to try fullback? He’ll give it a go. You need a good receiving back? He can do that too.
But the biggest added bonus you have with Smith is that he is a good contributor on special teams.
He’s already served as Zeke’s backup and goal line running back at Ohio State, so why ruin a good thing? With each new day, Smith is earning more clout as a legit RB and is no longer just seen as Jaylon’s older brother.
Why he makes the team: Jason Garrett loves guys who will do whatever is asked to help the team. He has shown good progress from year to year and found the end zone five times last year. He offers the team too much to just part ways with him.
Why he could be at risk: His cheap cap hit has been a pro for him in the past, but now the players he’s up against are also super cheap. Smith is on the last leg of a his contract so while he’s only costing the team a measly $705,000 against the cap, he’s only under contract for one more year.
Whenever you get a rookie from Alabama, you get an NFL ready-made player. Their college program is outstanding and it’s not just a coincidence that they send so many players to the NFL each year. The development of Nick Saban and his staff is a pure blessing to pro teams, however, there are drawbacks. Often times, players are drafted out of college because of their potential - traits and skills that have yet to be unleashed. You don’t get that with Bama players. What you see is what you get, which don’t get me wrong - you’re getting a good football player, but you don’t hear about too many of them rising higher in the professional circuit.
While everyone loves upside, sometimes just getting a solid football player is good. too. And that is what you have in Scarbrough. He’s a physical back who loves to bruise through the defense. This has led to some impressive power-thumping moments, but it’s also created durability concerns as well. If a team is looking for a featured back, he wouldn’t be a player to beat the drum for, but that wouldn’t be his role in Dallas. Instead, they would use him sparingly in short-yardage situations or when Zeke has wore down the defense. Just like that, they’d have a very nice complementary piece to their running back group.
Why he makes the team: He’s just a good fit with the Cowboys offense and being a rookie who signed a four-year, $2.5 million deal, he’ll be under contract for the next several seasons, costing the team a $636,388 average annual cap hit. That seems like a very cost-friendly investment.
Why he could be at risk: To make this roster, you need to be able to help in a variety of ways. Can Scarbrough help out on special teams? Alfred Morris was the exception to the rule last year, but he had one thing working in his favor - he never missed a game. Scarbrough doesn’t have such an impressive durability resumé to back him up so he’ll need to find something else to add to the mix.
Man, the Cowboys sure love the 2016 draft class. Not only do they have all nine of their own picks now under contract, but they also traded away Ryan Switzer for Jihad Ward who was taken in the second round of the 2016 draft. That’s 10 players from that draft class currently on the Cowboys roster. In order to keep this band together, it’s going to take a lot of work from sixth-round pick Darius Jackson to earn a roster spot. He made the team once already, making the initial 53 his rookie season because the team didn’t want to risk losing him on the practice squad. When McFadden was reactivated late in the season, Jackson was cut to make room for him. The Cleveland Browns quickly jumped on the opportunity and claimed him off of waivers the next day.
Jackson suffered a knee injury and never played a down for the Browns. After being released last month, he’s back in Dallas trying to make the team. Like both Smith and Scarbrough, Jackson also brings some pop to his running as he’s a physical runner with a freight train mindset. But unlike those other guys, Jackson also has breakaway speed.
Why he makes the team: Just like the other guys, Jackson’s cost is super cheap at $570,000 for the upcoming season. Similar to Smith, he’s very good as a receiver and can also contribute on special teams. Despite being the new add, his skills give him a legit shot and he could be the closest thing the team has to a complete running back next to Elliott. If for some reason they need a featured back, Jackson might be the better fit.
Why he could be at risk: Jackson’s upside may be higher than all the other backups, but the team may be looking for a yang to Zeke’s yin. With a “web-back” in Tavon Austin and fullback in Jamize Olawale, roster spots are scarce. Jackson is going to have to play at a level to make either Rod or Bo expendable in order to make the team.
Which two of these running backs would you pick to round out the Cowboys running back position group?