News broke Monday that the Dallas Cowboys made their first major roster move of the year. They put the franchise tag on Tony Pollard. On the tag, he will make just a bit less than $10.1 million. Unless they work out a long-term deal with the running back, all that hits the salary cap this year.
Pollard was a major cog in the offense last season, with 1,007 yards rushing and 371 receiving. He is expected to be the lead back in 2023. Ezekiel Elliott was just not effective last year; Pollard had more yards per rush, 5.2 to 3.8, and per reception, 9.5 to 5.4. Further, Pollard had twice as many catches.
It makes sense to try and keep such a valuable piece of the offense. But once again, the Cowboys have over-invested in the running back position. There is a lot of data that says the position is the easiest one at which to replace production. While Elliott was crucial to the success of the team in his rookie year, which was also Dak Prescott’s debut, using the fourth overall pick on him was an over-investment.
That is a symptom of a bigger issue, which the signing of Pollard continues. It is a contradiction in the logic of the team. They put great weight on the cap space used up by players. The pie has been referred to frequently by Stephen Jones as a real limiting factor for them. He points to Prescott’s contract as a reason it is hard to put more talent around the quarterback. But now he has tied up a good chunk of cap space with Pollard, and the team currently is just over $16.5 million in the hole for this year’s cap. This is more reason for the team to move on from Elliott, who would represent a $10.9 million cap increase as a post-June 1 release. There still is some talk that the team would like to retain Elliott, possibly on a new, less-costly deal. It doesn’t make sense from a football perspective given his lack of effectiveness last year. But the ownership seems to have an emotional connection to him and the huge deal he is currently playing on seems to reflect that.
So the signing of Pollard is too costly. Further, it also indicates that the thinking of the team is still behind the times. They speak publicly about how important the running game is, and that is out of step with how the best offenses in the league usually work. Passing is how the most successful teams get it done. The Philadelphia Eagles are cited as a counterargument for that, but their running game is very dependent on quarterback Jalen Hurts, which is not a viable long-term strategy in the league. Putting your quarterback at risk by using him as a ball carrier usually gets him injured.
The ground game is best when it is complementary to the passing game. In particular, leaning heavily on running the ball on early downs reduces the overall success of the offense. That has been a problem in Dallas for some time. We will have to see what the plan is with Pollard. Will they use him on first down as the primary running back? Pollard spent much of his career as the change of pace or passing down back, now it looks like he will be the primary in most situations.
Now with the draft coming up, there is a lot of speculation that the Cowboys could once again use their first-round pick on a running back. If they do, it would be another red flag that the team still is trying to play with a 20th century offense. Running backs no longer take over games the way Emmitt Smith once did.
Running the ball successfully is also very dependent on the offensive line. With a hole currently at left guard and a decision still to be made on bringing back Terence Steele as a restricted free agent, the line is another area of concern. If they are not able to control the line of scrimmage and open holes, the talent of the running back can be negated.
It is water under the bridge now, but a better approach for the team would have been to not tag Pollard and plan to look for good talent in the third round of the draft or later. It looks like a deep RB class this year, including a lot of players who are effective passing targets. Pollard is quite good, but he is hardly irreplaceable. Now the team has a bigger cap issue to address, and that is going to force some more restructures or extensions, and will unfortunately tend to lead to another year of bargain basement free agent shopping. Meanwhile, there is this:
after tagging Tony Pollard the Cowboys are spending:— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) March 6, 2023
$27,681,000 of their 2023 salary cap on RBs
$16,720,000 - Ezekiel Elliott
$10,091,000 - Pollard
$870,000 - Malik Davis
that would be the highest total in NFL history
and equates to over 12% of the salary cap pic.twitter.com/65Erg8BNrM
The main potentially negative impacts of the Pollard tag are hurting the overall talent by inhibiting the team from using free agency more aggressively and relying too much on the running game this season. We will hope that Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer can make this work. Bringing Pollard back on the tag just makes it all harder than it should be.