The Dallas Cowboys have some difficult decisions to make this offseason, but none is more difficult than the conundrum they find themselves at the running back position. Last season, we saw a changing of the guards at running back as Tony Pollard out-produced the incumbent featured back Ezekiel Elliott despite having fewer touches. Zeke finished with career lows in rushing attempts, yards, and yards per carry. And it was the first time ever he finished with under 1,000 total scrimmage yards as his impact in the receiving game was almost non-existent.
Meanwhile, it was a different story for Pollard. He finished with career highs in touches and yards in both rushing and receiving and his 12 touchdowns were more than he had in all three of his previous seasons combined. It was good enough to earn Pro Bowl honors for the first time in his career. Pollard now has over 500 rushing attempts where he has averaged over five yards per carry in his career.
With these running backs trending in opposite directions, the Cowboys have to decide how they want to proceed. Yesterday, we kicked off our offseason guide with the quarterback position group, and today we’ll take a closer look a the running back situation.
WHAT WE KNOW
Ezekiel Elliott will not be playing under his current $10.9 million base salary this season. The team will either work out a pay reduction or flat-out release him. If the team designated him a post-June 1st cut, they could drop his 2023 cap hit from $16.7 million to just $5.8 million, saving the team nearly $11 million in cap space.
As for Tony Pollard, his four-year rookie deal is up and he will now become an unrestricted free agent. The team could choose to franchise tag him for the one-year cost of $10.1 million (or a transition tag of $8.4 million).
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
The Cowboys could go a lot of different ways here as there is no clear-cut solution. They could keep the band together with a discounted Zeke and a tagged Pollard. This approach would be the easiest, but it would also be the most expensive. Or, they could choose to go with one guy or the other and then package them with second-year undrafted free agent Malik Davis or another new draftee. Finally, they could choose to hit the reset button altogether and fill their running back room with Davis, a lower-cost free agent and/or a fresh-legged rookie from the draft. The possibilities are plentiful.
The biggest moving piece to this is Pollard. He’s one of their best offensive weapons, so it’s hard imagining the team walking away from him. At the same time, they’ve already learned a hard lesson about throwing money at the running back position, so they could feel a little gun-shy. The $10 million in cap space it would take to retain him isn’t pocket change.
WHAT THE COWBOYS SHOULD DO
Releasing Elliott has to be the first order of business. We love him, the Joneses love him, and the locker room loves him. But what we don’t love is spending valuable cap resources on a player that offers no differentiation from the average Joe running back in the league. It may sound harsh, but Zeke, like so many before him, is not able to defy physics and the wear and tear is showing. He has lost his juice and the team can supplement his production at a much lower cost.
The safest way to handle this is to keep Pollard around for one more year and roll the dice in the draft. This isn’t a long-term commitment that will have long-term repercussions. This is a deep draft class of running backs and the Cowboys should be able to find a quality player without spending a premium draft resource. This affords the teams two possible cracks at a draft before they would have to be without Pollard’s services.