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Cowboy 2021 position groups: Evaluating the running backs

Do the Cowboys have enough depth behind Ezekiel Elliott?

San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have been one of the lucky franchises in the NFL when it comes to finding talented running backs. With guys like Don Perkins, Calvin Hill, Tony Dorsett, Herschel Walker, Emmitt Smith, and now Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys always seem to have one of the top running backs in the league. The starters have been solid, but in the NFL you also need depth. Right now Tony Pollard has been doing a very good job filling in when Elliott is in need of a breather. If Elliott were to go down for an extended period of time would Pollard and Rico Dowdle be able to carry the load in his absence?

Elliott, since coming into the league, has averaged 4.5 yards per carry, 89.9 yards per game on 20 carries per game. That’s a lot of wear and tear on a running back who has totaled 1,413 rushes throughout his career with the Cowboys and something that could be tough to duplicate with Pollard and Dowdle.

There are the other issues with Elliott. His production has been on the downswing, and it’s not certain if it is him slowing down, the issues with the offensive line injuries, or a combination of both. He averaged a career low of four yards per carry in 2020 and came in under 1,000 yards even though he played in 15 games.

Then there is the fumbling issue of 2020. One of the under-discussed issues that set the Cowboys back in 2020 was Elliott’s fumbles. He had six on the year and several came at crucial times in games. Elliott has alternated years when he’s fumbled a lot, then didn’t. Hopefully 2021 will be a year of low fumbles.

When Elliott is right, he is a do-it-all back. He can run with power, has a fair amount of burst, can catch the ball out of the backfield, and is one of the better pass protectors among running backs in the game. But he really does need a bounce-back year in 2021.

So how about the depth behind Elliott?

So far during his career, Tony Pollard has come into games mainly to give Elliott a break. In that short period of time has been able to average 4.8 yards per carry on 187 attempts. Very strong numbers for your backup running back, but still that is only an average of six attempts per game. Pollard may not be able to withstand the increased amount of abuse his body would endure if he had to be the featured back. He’s not built like Elliott, and seems to be more effective when he is out in space instead of doing the grind of softening up the middle of a defense.

Behind Pollard though is an even bigger question mark for the Cowboys who haven’t seen much from Rico Dowdle in live action. Dowdle only attempted seven rushes during his rookie season, so the Cowboys aren’t sure what they would be getting from him if he needed to come in for an extended period of time if Elliott and Pollard both went down. At South Carolina, Dowdle was a very productive running back amassing 2,167 yards with an impressive 5.1 yards per carry in the SEC. If the Cowboys are basing their reason for keeping him on the roster due to his college production and larger build than Pollard, then it could be interesting to see what happens in camp between the two players. That’s not to say that Dowdle would beat out Pollard, but he could start to get more reps in-game to help ease the wear and tear on both Elliott and Pollard.

So do the Cowboys have enough depth at running back to handle a continued dip in Elliott’s production or injury? It’s hard to say because we haven't really seen Pollard as a featured back over an extended period of time. He certainly looks explosive, but could he do all the things the Cowboys need at running back? Dowdle currently has no real NFL résumé to count on. Still, Elliott has proven to be a very durable back, and Pollard is productive when called upon. It’s likely the Cowboys stand pat at the position.