The Cowboys offense will need a new element to it this season if they want to avoid opposing defenses knowing their tendencies creating another in-season slump. Luckily, they have a player that can give them this versatility at running back.
It’s not starter Ezekiel Elliott entering year seven, but rather Tony Pollard in the final year of his rookie contract. The Cowboys used Pollard as a receiver and running back in OTAs, with the talk around their offense using a more mobile Dak Prescott and a reported promised role for Pollard to do more in Kellen Moore’s scheme.
Training camp will be the next opportunity for the Cowboys to make good on this talk, with Pollard’s work in practice rarely matching his gameday output. Pollard has only carried the ball 317 times in three years with the Cowboys. Elliott broke this number as a rookie in 2016 with 322 rushes.
Even still, Bleacher Report has tabbed Pollard as the Cowboys breakout candidate this season:
Ezekiel Elliott is no longer the game-changing running back that he was early in his career. After he averaged a career-low 58.9 yards per game on the ground last season and barely reached the 1,000-yard mark despite playing in all 17 games, the Dallas Cowboys are ready to give Tony Pollard a much bigger share of the carries.
According to Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Pollard was informed that he’ll be receiving a larger role on offense. He was spotted doing drills as both a running back and receiver during OTAs as he prepares for a campaign in which he will line up in the backfield and in the slot.
Pollard has been a much more efficient back than Elliott in each of his first three seasons. The 25-year-old just averaged a career-best 5.5 yards per carry while racking up 719 yards and two touchdowns on only 130 carries. He also showed his value as a pass-catching back with 39 receptions for 337 yards.
Pollard finished with only 27.5 percent of the Cowboys’ carries last season, but he should be in line for a bigger workload this year. PFF gave Pollard the highest rushing grade of any running back last season.
Pollard will likely wind up closing the gap with Elliott and receive a more even split of carries this year. The Cowboys will have to rely on their backfield more heavily than they have in recent years after trading away Amari Cooper this offseason, but the Memphis product should help in that regard.
There are a number of reasons why this season may finally be the turning point for Pollard’s usage. The Cowboys have clearly put the younger (and cheaper) players on their roster in position for bigger roles this offseason, by losing veterans such as Amari Cooper via trade and Connor Williams in free agency.
Pollard may not fit this bill perfectly, as a true breakout season would increase his price tag next offseason, but if given the choice to invest in a back with lower mileage the Cowboys could negotiate with Pollard instead of Elliott. There’s also the pressure on both Mike McCarthy and Kellen Moore to get this offense playing to it’s potential more consistently, and the Cowboys great uncertainty at receiver giving Pollard a chance to catch more passes.
The Cowboys made a big commitment to their running game by drafting Tyler Smith in the first round this year. If he reaches his full potential early on, it’s easy to picture Elliott running behind a left guard like Smith the same way he has with Zack Martin. Smith should also help Pollard though, who’s shown he can run nimbly between the tackles to show off his speed on the second level.
Dallas’ offense needs to find ways to get their best players in favorable matchups, like new top receiver CeeDee Lamb running over the middle against linebackers. Pollard can be a mismatch no matter where he lines up, creating 4% of the Cowboys explosive pass plays last season. This is the league average for a running back, but players like Darrell Henderson and Ty Johnson still ranked ahead of him. This is the biggest area where the Cowboys can find a larger role for Pollard, already getting 13% of their explosive runs out of Pollard’s career-high 130 rushes this season. The league average here is just 10%, so the Cowboys are generally on the right path towards featuring Pollard more.
The NFL is a copycat league when it comes to offensive trends, and running backs being used all over the field doesn’t seem to be going away. The Cowboys have their player ready to compete with the league’s best here, and have a lot riding on what Tony Pollard can do this season. All three of their NFC East competitors also landed a player on offense on this breakout list, though the Cowboys advantage with a full-strength offense is seen as the biggest reason why they can repeat as champions.