For the first time since 2015, Ezekiel Elliott will no longer command the lion’s share of carries among Cowboys running backs. With this huge change in the RB landscape, how can we expect Dallas to divvy up the touches between their rushers in 2023?
Naturally, Tony Pollard should get the most touches. He’s RB1 by a mile, both for his talent and previous production, and the fact he’s returning on the franchise tag. Dallas isn’t paying him $10.1 million this season to be a role player.
But unlike Zeke, who comfortably averaged 18.3 carries per game for most of the last seven years (plus about four catches), Pollard may not be able to sustain that workload. Even with last year’s increased usage he only averaged about 12 carries per game and 3.4 catches.
And while we tend to focus on rushing attempts with running backs, you can’t dismiss the receiving numbers as well. Both are touches that generally lead to hits and tackles, all factors in determining the potential detriment of wear and tear on a player. While he’s an unusually tough runner for his size and playing style, Pollard also hasn’t been asked to handle those gritty short-yardage carries that Elliott was so effective with. So even beyond the numbers, the type of carry also factors into this analysis.
Even if the Cowboys do end up giving those tougher carries to Ronald Jones or a different back, there is reported concern about Pollard’s ability to maintain his effectiveness with a significantly higher workload. He’ll still be the starter and almost certainly see an uptick in his total touches, but Dallas may end up utilizing more of their bench as they fill Zeke’s big shoes.
Even with his declined performance and injuries, Elliott still led the team with 231 of the 462 carries by Cowboys running backs in 2022. Pollard wasn’t too far behind with 193 rushes, a career-high for him and the narrowest margin between Zeke and Pollard during their four years together. So even last season we saw Dallas starting to move to more of a timeshare.
Ronald Jones would seem to be the next man up in 2023. A former starter in Tampa Bay, the 25-year-old was buried on the Chiefs’ depth chart last year and barely played. He’s still young and very fresh after last season. Jones averaged over 1,000 total yards for the Bucs from 2019-2020 and has proven versatility as a runner and receiver.
Another candidate is sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn. There’s already a lot of excitement around Vaughn, who’s been getting Darren Sproles comparisons and will be an intriguing chess piece for Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer to use on offense. McCarthy has experience with atypical weapons, such as Ty Montgomery from his Packers days, so how he utilizes Vaughn should be interesting.
We also still have Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle fighting for their roster spots. Dowdle was RB3 last year until another unfortunate injury, which allowed Davis to ascend and impress. But if Pollard, Jones, and Vaughn end up as your top three, and especially if Dallas keeps a true fullback this year in Hunter Luepke, the most Davis or Dowdle can hope for is to make the practice squad.
Who actually makes the 53-man roster is part of this projection, so let’s say it’s what we just outlined above. Pollard as the starter, Jones as the primary backup, Vaughn as a change-up option, and Luepke at fullback. Based on what we’ve seen in the past, here’s an idea of what the carries split might look like:
- Pollard - 200 carries (50 catches)
- Jones - 120 carries (35 catches)
- Vaughn - 30 carries (25 catches)
- Luepke - 20 carries (15 catches)
Of course, it’d be easier to project if Scott Linehan or Kellen Moore were still calling the shots on offense. Trying to predict what McCarthy and Schottenheimer are going to do is more of a blind jump, but we at least have a few things to go by. For example, one can look back on how McCarthy utilized FB John Kuhn in Green Bay and perhaps glean some of what he might do with Luepke.
Jones stands to have a higher catch-to-carry ratio because he’s your likely third-down back, putting him on the field in more passing situations on average. While some of that work will be as a blocker, it also means Jones stands to see a fair bit of screens and passes out of the backfield to increase his reception total.
Also, it’s worth noting that West Coast offenses have traditionally increased running backs’ numbers as receivers. If McCarthy’s increased influence means more West Coast principles being applied in Dallas, as has already been reported, we will probably see higher passing game production from the RB position.
However it shakes out, there’s no doubt that this Cowboys offense will feel very different in 2023. Ezekiel Elliott’s release leaves a major void in both production and personality. While the team will find bodies to fill the space, will they be as effective as the departed superstar? How Dallas manages their workloads and utilization could go a long way to affecting the outcome.