For the previous seven seasons in Dallas, the one thing that was a given was Ezekiel Elliott being the franchise’s lead back. Three out of his first four seasons in the NFL, he would surpass the 1,000 yards mark. The only season during this stretch that he would not surpass that was in 2017 when he played in just 10 games due to a six-game suspension. Even in 10 games played, he missed the 1,000 yard mark by just 17 yards. By the time 2019 came around, Elliott was among the top players at his position. Zeke would holdout for a bigger payday and by September 4th he would receive that big payday in the form of a six-year, $90 million contract extension. In that season where he got paid, it was another stellar season as he would rush for 1,357 yards.
However, in his final few seasons with the Cowboys, many have wanted to go in a different direction as there was a downtrend in Elliott’s game. The emergence of a flashier option named Tony Pollard also was a factor. By the time Zeke’s days in Big D were numbered, it was quite obvious that the organization badly misjudged the running back market. From a cap hit perspective, Elliott’s final season with the team in 2022 came with an over $18 million price tag with the next closest being Dalvin Cook of the Minnesota Vikings with a shade under $12 million of a financial hit. Interestingly enough, Elliott and Cook were both fixtures on their respective teams since entering the league and both are looking to join new teams for the first time in their careers.
So where does that leave Dallas heading into 2023? These four running backs will likely be the new-look Dallas backfield.
Tony Pollard looks to take the reins of the group and fill the void left by the departure of Ezekiel Elliott. Many would say it was overdue, but at the same time the question remains on how Pollard will handle the bulk of the carries this upcoming season. Even after his first 1,000 yard rushing season under his belt, the injury bug finally got a hold of him back in January’s postseason game against the San Francisco 49ers where he broke his leg late in the first half. At one point in time after the injury, concerns grew about how he would recover and if he would still be as explosive as he was prior. Recent news seems much more promising as it appears he is ahead of schedule and his explosiveness doesn’t seem to have been hampered. A healthy, electric Pollard will be key for the team’s success in 2023.
Ronald Jones II
A healthy Tony Pollard will certainly make the prospects of 2023 a much more positive one. With question marks regarding his health still ongoing, it would be wise to have a proven backup to carry the mail if number 20 isn’t as healthy as the team would like him to be. This is where Ronald Jones II comes into the mix. Jones, a native Texan who played his high school ball in nearby McKinney North, has proven to be a dependable player whenever his number was called. In the last three years alone, he has won two Super Bowls and even though from a statistical perspective the 2022 season wasn’t his best, it was more about the lack of opportunities versus the lack of ability.
In the two seasons where he averaged at least 10 carries a game, Jones rushed for 724 and 978 yards respectively with a total of 13 touchdowns. Not only is he a quality ball-carrier, he is also a threat in the passing game. During those same two years where his rushing attempts were at its peak, Jones would catch a total of 59 passes for 474 yards and a touchdown. The numbers don’t lie, he is an effective player when he is utilized properly and as Tony Pollard’s backup he will be a welcomed addition to the team.
The third-string player in name only is where Deuce Vaughn slides in among the running backs heading into the 2023 season. Due his diminutive size, he fell to the sixth round of this year's draft. From a production and talent standpoint, he is arguably a first-round player. His 1,558 rushing yards in 2022 ranked eighth in the country, and the year prior he rushed for 1,404 yards which ranked ninth in the country. Being top-10 in rushing in back-to-back seasons makes his talent pretty undeniable.
He is also a quality pass catcher and in his final two seasons with Kansas State, he combined for 91 receptions for 846 yards. The Cowboys coaching staff should have some creative ways to deploy Vaughn and use his skill set to the fullest. He will be a special teamer at first, but expect him to have a role in this offense as a change-of-pace runner with good pass catching skills. His dynamic play will make it hard for the coaches to keep him off the field even with the lack of size he possesses.
Last, but certainly not least, is another rookie looking to make his mark in a different way. That player is Hunter Luepke. Luepke went undrafted but was a hot commodity once the draft had concluded and wound up signing with America’s Team. The former North Dakota State Bison was listed at fullback, but during his days in Fargo he was deployed in various ways. In each of the last three seasons, he has carried the ball at least 84 times with an average yards per carry of six. In addition to a tremendous yards per carry average, he scored 23 touchdowns on the ground during this stretch as well which makes him quite the red zone threat.
Speaking of that red zone threat, it isn’t just a ground game thing for him as in the final two years on campus he scored a total of seven receiving touchdowns. He’s not just a scoring threat, he is a quality blocker as well. He isn’t the fastest player on the field, but has enough speed to challenge defenses no matter where he is deployed. His 6-1, 236-pound frame makes him the biggest ball carrier currently on the roster. Due to this, it would be wise to deploy him in short yardage situations as well as on special teams.
This foursome of Pollard, Jones, Vaughn, and Luepke have the makings of quite the quartet if deployed properly by the coaching staff. They all have different skill sets to bring to the field and make it difficult for defenses to figure out. We know the abilities of Pollard, and Jones, and even though Luepke and Vaughn are rookies, they both will make it hard for the coaches to keep them off the field in their rookie seasons.