In 2016, the Dallas Cowboys used their first pick in the NFL Draft to try and help quarterback Tony Romo by selecting Ezekiel Elliott. Although things did not pan out the way they expected when Romo went on injured reserve during the preseason, Elliott certainly had a stellar year. As they had intended, he also took some of the pressure off his quarterback as he and Dak Prescott were the rookie sensations that year. This year, things have come full circle, as Dallas used its first pick to take offensive lineman Tyler Smith. He is expected to play left guard, and it appears his main value to the team is to shore up the run blocking for Elliott.
This may not strike some as a wise use of resources. The NFL is a passing league. Elliott is getting to the age where running backs become markedly less productive. He clearly struggled last season. While there is certainly an argument to be made that the issues at left guard were a part of the problem, Smith’s selection smacks of addressing the wrong need.
However, there are some things that support the idea of revitalizing that running game. Most probably think Elliott had a really down season last year, but he still had the seventh most yards rushing in the league. Further breaking down his season also argues that he is far from done. Elliott suffered an injury in the fifth game of the season against the New York Giants, Through that game, he had 452 yards on the ground, averaging 90 yards a game. After that, his production truly fell off, and he would end the season only averaging 47 yards a week, even with that big start. A healthy Elliott, which is what the team expects, should be a lot closer to that first figure this season.
Addressing the situation at left guard was always seen as the main objective in the draft. The team was linked to both Kenyon Green and Zion Johnson since the start of the offseason, but both were gone before they went on the clock at 24. But according to Jerry Jones, Smith was the sixteenth highest player on their draft board, ahead of Green and Johnson. By their own evaluation, he was good value.
Dallas left the playoffs in a manner which also points to a need to have a more reliable running game. Part of the formula for the San Francisco 49ers in beating the Cowboys was a strong running game, where they held the edge by a 169 to 77 yards advantage. It reflected how they pushed Dallas around all game. Prescott outperformed Jimmy Garoppolo throwing the ball, but not enough as that bullying also led to five sacks against the Cowboys while they were unable to get to Garoppolo even once. The team also used the draft to address that issue, but that is another topic.
Smith’s addition to the offensive line clearly leans to the running game, although his strength also should pay off in pass protection as he develops his technique. With the superb Zack Martin on the other side of the center, runs up the gut should be more of a factor this year for Dallas. While the Cowboys could also have addressed center in the draft, they are going to rely on a competition alluded to by Stephen Jones between Tyler Biadasz, Matt Farniok, and UDFA Alec Lindstrom to find the best way forward.
Injuries, however, are the most unpredictable element in the NFL. Tony Pollard has been used as Elliott’s backup, coming in to relieve him when the starter takes a breather. That is not the best approach. Pollard is a different kind of runner. What needs to be done is to find a backup who is more like Elliott, especially in size and power. Stephen Jones said the team looked at drafting a back in the later rounds, but they used those picks in other ways.
They will need to see what they have in Rico Dowdle, JaQuan Hardy, and UDFAs Malik Davis and Aaron Shampklin. They might even look to Sewo Olinlua to be part of that competition. Pollard needs to be used more as a change of pace and passing game weapon. With Michael Gallup expected to start the season on PUP, Pollard could be used more as a de facto wide receiver. He has the ability to line up in the slot or even out wide, and could be a real threat on jet sweeps. Two back sets should be featured more by Kellen Moore to stress the defense.
The main objective, however, is for Elliott to reclaim his status as one of the elite backs in the game. They have put a key piece in place with Smith. If they can become the bully on the field, it could work.