In case you’ve missed it so far in the last five months or so, the Cowboys are preparing to embrace a more run-oriented approach on offense in 2022. Or at least that’s what players and coaches are saying, with personnel decisions backing up those words.
The Cowboys certainly have the makings for such an approach. Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard might just be the best running back tandem in the league. Rookie Tyler Smith, now playing left tackle after spending the preseason at left guard, was highly regarded for his run blocking in college despite being unrefined in pass protection. Similarly, center Tyler Biadasz and right tackle Terence Steele are both at their best when run blocking. And who could forget the near-total disassembly of this receiving corps?
But there’s one glaring problem with this tactic. Well, there’s actually several problems, but let’s assume that the Cowboys are right to bet on the very low odds of fielding a highly efficient run-heavy attack. Let’s talk about the longevity of such an approach, since Dallas very likely has designs on being competitive for more than just the 2022 season.
Both Elliott and Pollard are entering potential contract years. Pollard’s situation is more obvious, as his rookie contract will be up at the end of this season. With just 399 total touches in his career, Pollard hasn’t been used all that much, which would make him arguably more appealing to teams in free agency, especially since he’s averaging a tremendous 5.6 yards per touch.
Meanwhile, Elliott’s contract runs through the end of the 2026 season, but the Cowboys have a potential out they could choose to exercise after this year. By making Elliott a post-June 1st cut or trade, Dallas could save nearly $11 million, according to Spotrac. The Cowboys exercised a similar clause with Amari Cooper this offseason, opting instead to retain the younger, cheaper receiver in Michael Gallup.
The caveat with Gallup’s situation was that his extension came after tearing his ACL, which undoubtedly affected his final price tag. It’s entirely possible that the Cowboys could find themselves ready to move on from Elliott while also being priced out of Pollard’s market, making the running back position extremely uncertain for 2023.
Here’s the good news: they may already have the future of the running back position on the roster. Undrafted rookies Malik Davis and Aaron Shampklin were both part of the team’s final roster cuts on Tuesday, but Wednesday morning brought news that both were sticking around. Davis cleared waivers and signed to the practice squad, while Shampklin reverted to the injured reserve after being waived/injured on Tuesday.
Both running backs impressed in training camp and the preseason. Shampklin battled through nagging injuries in both the beginning and end of the preseason and ran for 106 yards on 28 carries across three games. Davis, on the other hand, carried the rock 31 times and accrued 132 rushing yards in addition to scoring a touchdown.
Davis played so well that many began to wonder if he might replace Rico Dowdle, the third-year veteran who had seemingly entrenched himself in the third running back spot, or potentially even force the Cowboys to carry four running backs. That wasn’t the case, but Davis slipped through waivers and made it back to the practice squad despite some uncertainty if he would be claimed elsewhere.
While players on the practice squad can get poached at any point throughout the year, it looks for now that both Davis and Shampklin will be with the Cowboys heading into 2023. That gives the team a solid fall back option regardless of what decisions they make with their two starters in a few months. It also gives them time to coach up Davis and Shampklin, get them more acclimated to the system, and evaluate them well before next offseason.
Perhaps this could be a wake-up call as well for Dallas, causing them to realize that they’ve found two running backs in the undrafted free agency pool who can be legitimate, productive runners in the NFL without having to invest premium draft capital or spending any precious cap space on them.
Given that the team will have to make some hard financial decisions in the next few years - with extensions due for Dalton Schultz, CeeDee Lamb, Trevon Diggs, and Micah Parsons before you know it - not having to allocate so much of the pie to Elliott or Pollard would make things much easier. Davis and Shampklin would certainly be happy to help out in that regard, and they may just get the chance to do so.