One of the biggest decisions the Dallas Cowboys will have this offseason is what to do with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. The team will look to improve its offense while maneuvering around the challenge of having a high-priced quarterback on the roster. Will they restructure Zeke? Will they franchise tag Pollard? Will they do neither and go a different direction altogether?
Yesterday, we presented the idea that the winning formula is putting the running back position at the bottom of the priority list and looking for cheaper ways to supplement the running game. Today, we’re going to offer up some names that could fit nicely in the team’s running back room without requiring much cap space.
Before we get started, it’s worth mentioning that this year’s free agent running backs are filled with some known commodities. Some backs are going to get paid, while others are going to go a little less. For the sake of this discussion, none of these bigger-name running backs are up for consideration (estimated market value shown, figures courtesy of spotrac):
- Josh Jacobs, $12.8 million
- Saquon Barkley, $12.3 million
- David Montgomery, $7.2 million
- Miles Sanders, $7.2 million
- Damien Harris, $7.1 million
- Kareem Hunt, $7 million
For anyone curious, Pollard’s estimated market value is $9 million per year.
After these top-tier free-agent backs are signed, things will become a lot more affordable. For Dallas, they should be looking for a veteran ranging from $1 to $3 million to pair with a fresh-legged rookie they can find in later rounds of the draft. So, who should the Cowboys target? Here are three free agents who could add depth to the Cowboys' running back group if they moved away from both Elliott and Pollard.
The Texas native
There was a time when there was a lot of optimism for D’Onte Foreman. He spent his first two years with the Houston Texans providing backup duty to Pro Bowler Lamar Miller. After being waived in 2019, he was signed by the Tennessee Titans where again he played a backup role to Derrick Henry. He was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal with Carolina last offseason.
Whether filling in for an injured Henry or the traded-away Christian McCaffrey, Foreman has finally been able to showcase his ability. After taking over the starting running back job in Carolina in the middle of the season, Foreman strung together some nice games. He had five games last year with over 100 yards rushing. That is two more than Zeke and Pollard had combined.
This Texas City High School/University of Texas back could come full circle by returning to the other NFL Texas team to give them some low-cost power and burst in the running game.
The guy who just needs a chance
D’Ernest Johnson is an undrafted free agent from South Florida who has been buried deep behind the Cleveland Browns' dynamic duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. He’s played sparingly throughout his four years in the league, including only four carries last season. He’s only had three games in his NFL career where he’s reached double-digit carries, but in each one of those games, he’s done well totaling 340 yards on 54 carries (6.3 ypc). Cowboys might remember one of those games when the Browns beat Dallas 49-38 back in 2020.
Johnson has swift-cutting feet to bounce outside but gets north and south in a hurry. He does a great job finding the creases and hits the holes quickly. He’s very good at adjusting in the backfield when the blocking fails, which has been something Cowboys running backs had to do down the stretch last year. Having a player who can create his own space is always nice. Johnson is also a useful pass catcher who also offers ability as a returner.
The unsexy staple
After moving on from Leonard Fournette, the Jacksonville Jaguars landed a gem of a replacement in UDFA James Robinson. All he did was rush for over 1,000 yards his rookie season and added another 344 yards as a receiver. The following season, the Jags revamped their running group by signing veteran Carlos Hyde and drafting first-round rookie Travis Etienne, but after the rookie got hurt and Hyde was less than impressive, it would again be Robinson who led the team in rushing. Even last year when Etienne returned, Robinson held on to the starting job for the first five weeks of the season. He was traded to the New York Jets in late October.
There is nothing flashy about how Robinson plays and he doesn’t possess any elite athletic traits. What he brings is an awareness to find running space and some underrated yards after contact. He stays low, catches passes, and has shown he can handle the workload if asked.
A signing like Robinson wouldn’t be any different than what other teams who got him were doing, adding depth. He could be a safe veteran bridge to help bring a young rookie along if that’s the direction the Cowboys went.
Robinson is a restricted free agent, but the Jets have recently invested in some young runners (Breece Hall and Michael Carter).
It may seem like a risky endeavor to go from Zeke and Pollard and replace them with players like this, but if the Cowboys' front office can do a great job finding low-cost contributors at other positions, why couldn’t they do the same at one of the more replaceable positions in the league?