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Cowboys 2023 offseason position breakdown series: Running back

A breakdown of all the running backs on the Dallas Cowboys roster. The stats, the cap allocation and projections, all found here on the Position Breakdown series.

Dallas Cowboys v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Courtney Culbreath/Getty Images

The Position Breakdown Series is taking every position group for the Dallas Cowboys and looking at the players, their rankings, contract numbers and predicting the upcoming season for each player.

This edition is looking at the running back position for Dallas, so let’s get straight to it.

Tony Pollard #20
Age: 26
Experience: 5 years
College: Memphis

2022 Stats:
Total Snaps- 627
Rush Attempts- 193
Rush Yards- 1007
Rushing TD- 9
Yards per attempt- 5.2
Receptions- 39
Receiving Yards- 371
Receiving TD- 3
First Downs- 64

2023 Contract:
Cap Cost- $10,091,000 (FRANCHISE TAG- 4.4% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $10,091,000
Base Salary- $10,091,000

2023 Projection:

Tom - Tony Pollard is now the unquestioned starter and will see the most touches. 1,200 yards rushing and 300 receiving should be a minimum expectation with Mike McCarthy insisting the running game is going to be emphasized.

The only question now is how he is used. Will he have the same number of carries inside as Ezekiel Elliott? Pollard can succeed running between the tackles, but there is a lot of evidence that he would be best utilized running outside, with the opportunity to cut back inside if a hole opens up. I don’t think production will be an issue at all. I’m just worried about him getting beat up. His injury in the divisional round of the playoffs was a big problem for the Cowboys, and they need to avoid that both by protecting Pollard and by having a viable plan B.

Mike - While playing at Memphis, Pollard was used heavily in the receiving game, almost at times as an extra wide receiver. With Mike McCarthy taking over the offense and installing his west coast offense, it’s totally expected he will get Pollard involved on flat routes or getting him moved to the slot and catching passes from there. Although this year the running back rotation looks to be more by committee without Ezekiel Elliott, I agree that Pollard takes prime position, and if he gets less than 300 touches this year something has gone wrong. Last year he just failed to make that benchmark, but he was sharing with Zeke in a split so his workload should go up this year. Pollard still had over 1,000 yards rushing and scored nine rushing touchdowns which ranked 11th among running backs. Where I think we get to see Pollard a little differently this year is his runs down the middle in the A and B gap. Pollard’s average yards after contact are elite, he was second last year with 3.76 yards, and given more chance and opportunity he can use his agility and elusiveness to avoid those lumbering linebackers and make some big breakaways for the offense.

Right now, though, it’s all about his health and what Pollard we get post-injury. If he’s all good and nothing with him has changed from the injury, then I see him coming away with a performance that ranks him in the top three running backs in combined yards and touchdowns.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - San Francisco 49ers v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Ronald Jones #32
Age: 25
Experience: 6 years
College: USC

2022 Stats: (Kansas City)
Total Snaps- 40
Rush Attempts- 17
Rush Yards- 70
Rushing TD- 1
Yards per attempt- 4.1
Receptions- 1
Receiving Yards- 22
Receiving TD- 0
First Downs- 5

2023 Contract:
Cap Cost- $1,092,500 (0.4% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $302,000
Base Salary- $1,080,000
Signing Bonus- $152,000

2023 Projection:

Tom - Let’s talk RB2 first. The Cowboys want to have 2,000 - 2,500 yards of production on the ground. That would mean the second running back would need to contribute around 600 or so at a minimum, with the rest coming off jet sweeps, QB runs and the like. He also has to be ready to step up if Pollard gets nicked.

At the moment, Jones has to be considered the leader for this job, based on experience. His last year with the Kansas City Chiefs is puzzling, because they just didn’t use him. In his previous three years playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers he averaged 710 yards a season. That sure looks like exactly the level of production Dallas wants from him. The possible pitfall is that his production certainly took a turn for the worse after 2020, when he gained 978 yards. And you have to worry about why he was invisible to the coaches last year in KC.

Mike - I was always a fan of Jones in college but so far he has had an up and down career. He did have one good season with Tampa Bay in 2020, but even that year he only scored seven rushing touchdowns. The Cowboys front office was very smart to protect themselves before the draft with a player that can contribute if called upon, but with the other players at the position, and who they got during the draft period, I think Jones now becomes the odd man out.

Malik Davis #34
Age: 24
Experience: 2 years
College: Florida

2022 Stats:
Total Snaps- 84
Rush Attempts- 38
Rush Yards- 161
Rushing TD- 1
Yards per attempt- 4.2
Receptions- 6
Receiving Yards- 63
Receiving TD- 0
First Downs- 11

2023 Contract:
Cap Cost- $870,000 (% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $0
Base Salary- $870,000
Signing Bonus- $0

2023 Projection:

Tom - If Jones is plan B for the lead back, Davis is plan B for the backup job. He had a very good preseason last year and stuck around to appear in twelve games, although primarily as a special teams contributor. Many think he is ahead of Jones on the preseason depth chart, but I just don’t see it that way. I do think the Cowboys will carry four RBs this year - but Davis is not one of them, as I’ll explain in a bit. My expectation is that the team will try and get him back on the practice squad.

Mike - This coaching staff are not shy on how they feel about Davis and I think his outlook is slightly different. I think he will play more of the backup or RB2 role than what Jones will. We had an inclination last year in moments of what he was capable of, and this year will be his chance to shine. His first step, of course, is to be the standout over Jones during preseason and then we will know for sure. If he can continue where he left off last year, or be the guy we saw against Indianapolis, then he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch. If he doesn’t get 200 touches and 800 yards then that would be a disappointing season for Davis.

Dallas Cowboys v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Rico Dowdle #23
Age: 24
Experience: 4 years
College: South Carolina

2022 Stats:
Total Snaps- 6

2023 Contract:
Cap Cost- $1,040,000 (0.4% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $100,000
Base Salary- $940,000
Signing Bonus- $100,000

2023 Projection:

Tom - Dowdle has been plagued by injuries his entire time in Dallas. I suspect he is more talented than Davis, but the lack of availability is his curse. He could make a big charge in camp, but he is in a three way competition with Davis and Jones, and might get squeezed off the practice squad as well. Him getting healthy and making the team would be a real feel good story. Of course, there is already one of those in Dallas, and it’s in the same room.

Mike - Dowdle can never shake the injury bug and this is his biggest hurdle. The coaches obviously like him which is why he continues to stick around, but I wonder if some of that is they are hoping he can develop a little more to what they are expecting. Both rookies though for me are higher ranked than Dowdle and he has a tough road to get on the final 53.

Deuce Vaughn #42
Age: 21
Experience: Rookie
College: Kansas State

2022 Stats: (College)
Total Snaps- 789
Rush Attempts- 293
Rush Yards- 1558
Rushing TD- 9
Yards per attempt- 5.3
Receptions- 42
Receiving Yards- 378
Receiving TD- 3
First Downs- 78

2023 Contract:
Cap Cost- $783,334 (0.3% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $133,336
Base Salary- $750,000
Signing Bonus- $33,334

2023 Projection:

Tom - Oh, that feel good story I was talking about? Yeah, if you didn’t choke up a bit when Vaughn got the call from his own father that he was being taken by the Cowboys, you are a heartless monster and should not be allowed in normal human society.

Make no mistake, though. This was a well-reasoned decision by the staff. They did gamble on him making it to their supplemental sixth-round pick, but there seems to be a clear role for the diminutive Deuce. With Pollard taking over starting duties, there is no other true change-of-pace back on the roster. While some question his measurables, his video shows nothing but big play after big play, with innumerable defenders left grasping air when they try to stop him. Further, Vaughn could well be the backup for KaVontae Turpin as a punt returner, and both could play a very similar role in the passing game. I do not expect the NFL game to be too big for Vaughn, and am optimistic he has an outsized impact for a late sixth-round pick.

I also am going into therapy to quit making size based jokes.

Mike - Being a father myself, seeing the father-son moment during the draft with Vaughn was easily the highlight of this year's draft for me. If some people want to talk about certain players getting drafted too early by Dallas, those same people have to agree the Cowboys got Vaughn at massive value. For those worried about his size, it’s true he’s short and lightweight, but that didn’t stop him leading the FBS last year in all-purpose yards and the year before being eighth in the nation in rushing yards. He’s an outlier for sure, but he’s also talented and for this offense he will offer huge change-of-pace upside as well as being able to play on special teams. If can play this year with somewhere in the range of 50-100 snaps, and 240-480 rushing yards then he’s had a good start to his NFL career.

Allstate Sugar Bowl - Alabama v Kansas State Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images

RB6 (FB)
Hunter Luepke #43
Age: 23
Experience: Rookie
College: North Dakota State

2022 Stats: (College)
Total Snaps- 282
Rush Attempts- 97
Rush Yards- 628
Rushing TD- 9
Yards per attempt- 6.5
Receptions- 14
Receiving Yards- 196
Receiving TD- 4
First Downs- 47

2023 Contract:

Cap Cost- $756,666 (0.3% Total Cap)
Dead Cap- $200,000
Base Salary- $750,000
Signing Bonus- $6,666

2023 Projection:

Tom - I’m very confident in Vaughn making the roster because he is something different than Jones/Davis/Dowdle. I’m nearly as confident that Luepke will make it because he is also different, in the opposite way. Listed as a 236 lb fullback coming out of college, his performance was more effective than you might guess, particularly the 33 touchdowns he scored both rushing and receiving. And there is an obvious role that Dallas needs filled, the short-yardage specialist. Just like with Vaughn, I think there is a real plan for Luepke, and he will make the roster for his combination of traditional fullback abilities and his capacity to be used as a traditional running back as well.

And there is something about him that makes me remember a time when Cowboys games always had the crowd calling out “Mooooooose...”

Mike - I love this pick in the UDFA pool. For short-yardage situations, he’s perfect in this backfield rotation to take on that responsibility. He’s not bad as a receiver either, so has some upside there, but Tom has already spoken about the role he can play as lead-blocking fullback for the other running backs. This year, he will likely be playing a lot of snaps on special teams, based not just on his size and athletic profile, but also his experience at North Dakota State.

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