There are plenty of questions that have yet to be addressed regarding the Cowboys backfield. At this very moment, running back Ezekiel Elliott and his $16.72 million dollar cap hit for 2023 are currently on the roster. This figure ranks second behind Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones for the highest cap hit for any running back in the NFL for this upcoming season. When Zeke signed this contract in 2019, the numbers seemed a little high but to that point he was arguably the best running back in the league. Since then however, he has had six documented lower body injuries which have seemingly taken the explosiveness he once had away from him.
Although the explosiveness isn’t what it used to be, Elliott can still be an effective runner. It may not look as pretty as it did in his earlier seasons, but the last three seasons he has averaged over 950 yards a season and he did break the 1,000 yard mark in 2021. This past season he posted career lows in rushing yards and average yards per carry, but he did score 12 rushing touchdowns on the year. The last few seasons for Zeke do not justify the money he is making, but he can still be an effective player for the Cowboys if he is willing to take a pay cut.
The kind of pay cut that needs to happen will be one that pays him to essentially be the backup running back, and short-yardage specialist. Even with a reduced role, he still can probably command around $5 million per year. This would be essentially a two-thirds cut in pay from where his contract sits currently. A pay cut of this magnitude seems to be the only way he stays on the roster going forward. Recent reports suggest that he is reportedly willing to discuss a pay cut. Either way, this is going to be interesting to see how this whole situation plays out.
The contract dilemma has also affected Elliott’s backfield mate Tony Pollard, who is a free agent ahead of the 2023 season. The main difference between the two players is that Pollard is on an upwards trajectory, and Elliott is on the back end of his NFL career. For the last four seasons, Pollard has been playing on his fourth-round rookie deal that has paid him an average of just under $800,000 a season. The Cowboys have gotten a great return on the initial investment with how well he has performed since becoming a Cowboy in 2019. This past season for Pollard was the breakout season that many folks expected would come if he was given the opportunity as he led the team in rushing yards with 1,007. He also ranked fifth on the team in receiving yards, and tied for fourth on the team in receptions as well. Between being used as a traditional running back, and as a pass catcher, he totaled 12 touchdowns on the year.
It was pretty clear that the team wanted to get the ball in his hands as much as possible because of how dynamic of a player he is. It felt like on just about every play, he was going to break loose for a big gainer and on many occasions did just that. Things had seemed to be trending in the right direction for Tony Pollard, until he was injured in what would be the final game of the season after the loss to the 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs. Unfortunately for him, he suffered a high ankle sprain and a broken leg which is expected to sideline him about three months. Literally and figuratively speaking, it was a tough break for Pollard. Thankfully, he will be healed up and ready to go in plenty of time before the 2023 regular season kicks off. This injury could effect his future earnings that he will be expected to get in free agency, but $8 to $10 million per year isn’t a bad consolation considering what he has made up to this point.
With Pollard expecting to get a big raise this offseason, and Elliott’s massive contract still on the books at this very moment, it seems that chances of keeping this duo together for the long haul is a long shot. However, there is one potential option that keeps both players in Dallas, and that is to take the money saved from a potential Zeke pay cut, and essentially give that money to Tony Pollard. By shuffling the money around, this would create plenty of optimism that both players will be with the Cowboys in 2023 and beyond.
Depending on how the Elliott and Pollard contract situations pan out, it would be a good idea to have some insurance policies in place just in case the doomsday scenario happens where both players are no longer on the team. The feeling is at least one of them will be back, and if this scenario plays out then the running back position is still an area worth targeting in this year’s NFL draft.
Here are three players to keep an eye on in the coming months with the draft approaching.
1. Tank Bigsby, Auburn
Before arriving at Auburn, Tank Bigsby was a highly-touted five-star recruit that could’ve gone to any school of his choosing as he was ranked the fourth best running back in the country for the class of 2020. Even with being as highly touted as he was coming out of high school, he flashed that ability during his three years in college. By the time his days in Auburn were over, he ran the ball 540 times for 2,903 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns. With an average of 5.4 yards per carry in the best conference in college football, he has shown plenty of game to get himself to the next level.
Bigsby as a runner possesses tremendous agility, and has one of the best jump cuts in this year’s running back class. He also plays with great balance which leads him being a great finisher that rarely falls backwards. Patience as a back is key, and Bigsby has plenty of it. It doesn’t hurt to have a little speed either, and he has plenty of that given his track background.
On the other hand, Bigsby isn’t much of a pass catcher and his route tree is very limited. At times, his pad level can be a little too high which leads to technical issues in pass protection. These issues that stuck out are things that can be coached up and fixed. The talent is there, and he just needs a little fine tuning.
2. Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota
If you are looking for flash, then Mohamed Ibrahim isn’t your guy. If you are looking for a college player who can come in and contribute right away, then Ibrahim is that guy. Unlike the highly-touted Tank Bigsby, Mo Ibrahim was a three-star recruit coming out of high school and didn’t receive as many scholarship offers. When it was all said and done, he decided to commit to Minnesota. After six years in school, Ibrahim was the all-time leading rusher at the University of Minnesota with 4,668 yards. He would also finish his career in 2022 in a huge way by breaking single-season school records in rushing with 1,665 yards, and touchdowns with 20.
Statistics aside, Ibrahim is a gamer who does many things very well. He is tremendous in pass protection, and has a good anchor while blocking. This will suit him well in the NFL because many running backs coming out of college do not possess this trait. On first contact by defenders, he rarely goes down because of how powerful he is. Even though he is powerful, he does have adequate speed which results in being rarely tackled from behind.
From strictly a running and pass protection perspective, Mo Ibrahim is NFL ready from day one. What potentially causes him to fall to the middle rounds of the draft are his age which he will be 25 years old when the regular season starts and his injury history. In 2021, he suffered an Achilles tear that caused him to miss most of the season. Another piece of his game that will need to be coached up is his pass catching because he was rarely used on passing downs in college because of the type of offensive scheme Minnesota runs.
Ibrahim checks a lot of the boxes you are looking for in a running back, and can come in right away and contribute. It is possible that he will end up as a one-dimensional back, but a very effective one at that. He should have a decent career ahead of him regardless.
3. Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Last, but certainly not least there is one other mid-round prospect that should be considered and that player is Sean Tucker. Just like Ibrahim, Tucker was not a highly-touted prospect as he was a three-star player as well. Only three Power-5 schools offered a scholarship to Tucker out of high school. One of those schools was Syracuse, and that is where he chose to go. There was a logjam at the running back position when he arrived on campus, but due to injuries and COVID opt-outs, he earned plenty of playing time and scored four touchdowns his freshman year.
After three seasons, Tucker would carry the ball 589 times for 3,182 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns. He would also add 64 grabs for 622 receiving yards and four touchdowns. In just three years, Sean Tucker did some historic things at a school known for having plenty of history at the running back position. In 2021, he would break the school record for single-season rushing yards with 1,496 which led to All-American honors that same year.
On-field production was certainly not a problem for Sean Tucker as he is a very gifted player. Tucker has home run hitting speed which makes sense because he is also a very accomplished track star as well. He is very good in the pass game, and possesses soft hands. Even though he is a good receiving back, he is also good between the tackles and uses that speed he possesses to his advantage.
Tucker has many tools that NFL teams covet in the draft, but he does have question marks regarding his pass protection ability which stems from his pad level being a tad too high at times. In addition to being a liability in pass protection, Tucker does have wear and tear concerns because of his usage during his time with the Orange. As the focal point in the offense in most games, he would absorb a lot of contact and seemed to get nicked up from time to time.
Given the amount of talent that Tucker possesses, he should have a nice career in the league if he can clean up the pass protection deficiency. By all accounts, he is very coachable and should be able to shake this issue in short order.