The running back position for the Dallas Cowboys has undergone major construction after the release of seven-year veteran Ezekiel Elliott. The team is temporarily leasing the services of Tony Pollard as they placed the franchise tag on him after his rookie contract expired. It’s unclear what the future holds with Pollard in terms of whether or not the Cowboys will re-up him long-term, or just move on from him after the 2023 season.
With a running back-heavy draft class, many expected the team to find answers in the form of a fresh-legged rookie running back. And while they may have not taken one as earlier as we thought, they still came away with Kansas State star running back, Deuce Vaughn. The team also signed free agent running back Ronald Jones and has a few undrafted free agents hanging around. With all these casts of characters, how should we expect the running back group to shape out?
The Lead Dog
The way we see it, the Cowboys didn’t draft a running back sooner for one of two reasons. Either they always had another player at a different position rated higher than their top running back available, or, they know they are going to keep Pollard around for the long term and didn’t feel the need to address the position until late.
Regardless of which line of reasoning makes the most sense, what we can say is that this team will have Pollard in the backfield this upcoming season. The explosiveness he brings is something any offense would love to have. He’s four years in with over 500 carries in the books, and he still has managed a career average of over five yards per carry.
He’s coming off a leg injury that ended his season in the divisional round of the playoffs, but he should be good to go come September. He’s not a workhorse back, so he’ll need a partner(s) in crime to share the load, but expect more of the same from this dynamic running back.
The Vaughn pawn
The only thing more difficult than predicting the future of Pollard is trying to project what the Cowboys have in rookie back Deuce Vaughn. With two great years of college production, this shifty runner presents another exciting weapon for this offense. Both Pollard and Vaughn exceed 20 miles per hour, so having round-the-clock explosiveness brings about much excitement.
But is it fair to place those types of expectations on the rookie? After all, there are reasons he fell to the sixth round. The obvious one is his size as he’s just 5’6” and players in the NFL are bigger and hit with greater force. We can get excited about him, but it might be wise to take a wait-and-see approach with this one before just expecting him to be the next Darren Sproles.
Another player who offers some intrigue is the 25-year-old free agent acquisition Ronald Jones. Similar to Pollard, the wear and tear on him is low as he has just a smidge over 500 career rushes. While his usage has faded recently, he’s just a couple of seasons away from a 978-yard, seven-touchdown season. Jones was fantastic in 2020, leading the eventual Super Bowl-winning Tampa Bay Buccaneers in rushing despite also having a healthy Leonard Fournette on the roster.
The veteran back signed with Dallas on a cheap one-year deal, and who’s to say he even makes the final roster? However, if this former second-round pick can grind out those yards as he did a few years ago, he could be a nice addition to the running back group. Jones brings power and can catch passes, so there’s some sneaky upside here.
Malik or Rico?
The debate for which UDFA should earn the last running back spot last year was between the more experienced Rico Dowdle and the new guy Malik Davis. Dowdle emerged victorious, but an injury ended his season after just five games, opening the door for Davis to join the party.
This summer should once again provide us with another good battle. Despite Dowdle being a favorite of coaches and many fans, don’t be surprised if Davis retains his job. With more player control and a cleaner track record in terms of staying healthy, we could end up seeing more of Davis this season.
The Luepke project
Every year there are a handful of new undrafted free agents that earn their way on the roster, and North Dakota State’s Hunter Luepke is a prime candidate to do just that. He’s extremely versatile; not only can he run, but he can block and catch passes as well. He’s a leg-churning runner so his short-yardage power has greater appeal without the presence of Elliott on the roster. Luepke can play special teams and possesses the athleticism to take on the Sean McKeon fullback/tight end role in this offense.
It’s unclear how the running back room will turn out, but the Cowboys have all kinds of options. And while things may not turn out as well as we hope, it’s also possible that they end up with one of the more dynamic groups we’ve seen in some time.