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Three ways to approach the running back position; which one should the Cowboys use?

There is more than one way to have an effective running game.

Los Angeles Rams vs. Dallas Cowboys David Kent/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/TNS via Getty Images

It won’t be much longer before the Dallas Cowboys lock up their big name players with long-term extensions that will keep them wearing the star for years to come. Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that the team will keep all their star players; however, many of us believe that to be the case. Recently, we talked about how the Cowboys can afford to keep all of their key star players: Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper - if they chose to do so.

There’s a case to be made for each of these guys and how important they are to the offense, but what if the Cowboys front office decided to be cautious with their money and only paid two of them? When that idea is discussed, the odd man out is usually Zeke simply because it’s a lot easier to find a running back who can produce than it is to find quarterbacks and wide receivers. That’s not to say that Elliott is trailing in talent, because that simply is not true. In fact, Zeke is arguably the best player at his position, whereas the other two guys are not.

But his position is still running back, and it’s been demonstrated that teams can have success without having one of the game’s best players in the backfield. But does that mean the Cowboys should follow suit and explore other avenues of sustaining a strong running attack without allocating so much of their cap resources to Elliott?

In April’s draft, three of the top four running backs were selected by NFC playoff teams from last season. There were two things that stood out as odd about this. First, each of three teams already had a young Pro Bowl running back on their squad. Second, each of these squads didn’t have a lot of draft capital, yet they still went after a new ball carrier. It’s interesting because these teams all have a different approach to how they go about assembling their running back unit. Let’s examine...

The Philly Shuffle

Ever since Shady McCoy left, the Philadelphia Eagles haven’t had a 1,000 yard rusher. You can’t blame them for trying as the team has brought over five different 1,000 yard rushers from other teams over the last five years.

It’s been a mixed bag when it comes to rushing production, and subsequently team success. Initially, the Eagles started out hitting the free agent market hard signing both DeMarco Murray and Ryan Matthews. At the time of their signing, they were the fifth and 13th highest paid running backs in the league. That turned out to be an expensive tandem that went nowhere.

Then, they rented the services of LeGarrette Blount for a year as well as trading a fourth-round pick to Miami to acquire Jay Ajayi. This duo worked extremely well as they had a strong running attack en route to a Super Bowl victory.

Overall, here is how the Eagles finished in rushing and points scored over the past four seasons:

  • 2015: 14th in rushing, 13th in points scored (finished 7-9)
  • 2016: 11th in rushing, 16th in points scored (finished 7-9)
  • 2017: 3rd in rushing, 3rd in points scored (finished 13-3, won Super Bowl)
  • 2018: 28th in rushing, 18th in points scored (finished 9-7)

The Eagles continue to look for ways to supplement their rushing attack as they traded a conditional six-round pick for Chicago’s Jordan Howard, and will package him with the young rookie from Penn State, Miles Sanders.

In a matter a just a few years, the Eagles have gone from spending lots of money on the position, to going super cheap. Howard is in the last year of his deal and the Eagles will be on the search again next year unless Sanders turns into a workhorse back.

Financially, this is a cheap way to go, but over the last few years the team has invested several picks at running back: second-rounder (Sanders), two fourth-rounders (Ajayi and Donnel Pumphrey), fifth-rounder (Wendall Smallwood), and at least a sixth-rounder (Howard). It may be cap-friendly, but the Eagles running back group is like a box of chocolates.

2019 cap hit: $3 million ($2 M for Howard, $1 M for Sanders)

Should the Cowboys use this approach? In a way they already tried it back in 2015 when Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle shared the workload. The running game itself was still top 10 that year, but defenses just sat back and dared the quarterback to beat them. The Cowboys had no answer and finished second to last in points scored.

While that season is not a good one to use to judge that approach, the Cowboys had a nice six-game sample in 2017 when Elliott was serving his suspension. While the team finished 3-3 during that stretch, a closer look shows the offense struggled. The first three games of that stretch were against playoff teams and the Cowboys offense didn’t reach 10 points in any of those games. Prescott had five interceptions and no touchdowns. There were able to turn things around and win the next three, but those games were all against non-playoff teams. The absence of Tyron Smith also played a part in the team’s offensive struggles, so it’s really tough to know for sure what type of effect this approach would have.

Accident Forgiveness

In 2015, the Los Angeles Rams invested a first-round pick to grab the best running back in the draft. And while there were knee concerns coming out of college with Todd Gurley, he eventually healed up and was running wild over the league. He’s been a Pro Bowler in three of his first four years in the league, including earning All-Pro honors in each of the last two season.

The Rams loved what they had in Gurley so much that they signed him to a four-year, $57 million extension last year. Unfortunately, knee issues surfaced last season and he missed two games down the stretch. The team signed C.J. Anderson off the street for dirt cheap and he helped the Rams rushing attack keep going without missing a beat. In two starts last year, Anderson rushed for 299 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 123 yards and two touchdowns in the playoff game against Dallas last year.

With Gurley’s health in question, the Rams doubled-down by drafting Memphis’ Darrell Henderson in the third round of this year’s draft. The team has added an insurance policy.

Regardless of who’s carrying the load in Los Angeles, the Rams are going be financially burdened at the running back position. And if Gurley is held back by nagging injuries, it’s going to sting a bit as they are essentially stuck with him until 2022 when they’ll have a less severe dead money hit should they cut him loose.

2019 cap hit: $10 million ($9.2 M for Gurley, $767k for Henderson), but it will rise to $18 million next season.

If they Cowboys give Elliott a second contract, then they will be employing this approach. They drafted Tony Pollard to add another weapon to the offense and keep some of Elliott’s wear down. While it’s nice to have this type of threat in the backfield, it will come with a price in terms of the salary cap.

Use it, lose it, then repeat it

There was a time where the Chicago Bears relied heavily on the dynamic Matt Forte. The versatile running back averaged nearly 1,600 yards over his eight-year career with the Bears. But once Forte hit 30, the team let him walk in free agency as he signed a new deal with the New York Jets. The Bears took to the draft to find their new running back and scored when they found Jordan Howard in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.

While it was awfully convenient to land Howard, the Bears had been dipping their toes in the water just about every year in search of quality running back talent. Some hit, some didn’t, but to their credit - they kept at it. Here are the running backs the Bears have drafted over the last five years:

  • 2014 - Ka’Deem Carey (4th Rd)
  • 2015 - Jeremy Langsford (4th Rd)
  • 2016 - Jordan Howard (5th Rd)
  • 2017 - Tarik Cohen (4th)
  • 2019 - David Montgomery (3rd)

As you can see, none of them are early draft picks and most of them are found on Day 3. It’s a cheap route to go, both salary wise and draft capital, but let’s be honest - this hasn’t necessarily translated to success in Chicago. Prior to this past season, the Bears finished in last place in the NFC North over the previous four seasons. Maybe things will be different this year with the combo of Tarik Cohen and Iowa State rookie David Montgomery.

The Bears are going the cheap route at running back and that’s a good thing because they have so much money tied up in other players. Next season, Khalil Mack will be the highest non-quarterback cap in the league with over $26 million. And Kyle Fuller will be the second-highest cornerback cap hit with $17.5 million. If the Bears can pull off an effective ground game, that’s a lot of extra cash for other stars.

2019 cap hit: $1.5 million ($803k for Cohen, $756k for Montgomery)

If the Cowboys don’t end up extending Zeke, this approach could be the way to go. It would require them to stay ahead of things and dabble at running back rather frequently in drafts. For a team that relies heavily on a good ground game, that’s a little risky, but it would free up money to pay other players on the team.


Which running back method should the Cowboys choose?

This poll is closed

  • 61%
    Keep Zeke, but always have insurance
    (865 votes)
  • 2%
    Try to bring over low-cost veterans via trade or free agency
    (31 votes)
  • 36%
    Constantly replenish through the draft
    (504 votes)
1400 votes total Vote Now

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