clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2023 Cowboys roster breakdown: Running backs

So much is changing at the running back position this year for the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL Combine Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Mike McCarthy is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, but his first since taking over the offensive play-calling. Since coming to Dallas, McCarthy has led the Cowboys to consecutive 12-win seasons, but they’ve failed to reach the NFC Championship Game both years.

After getting a little more aggressive this offseason in an attempt to get over the hump, the Cowboys are hoping for a big 2023 season. In anticipation of that, let’s take an in-depth look at every position on the roster. Today, we’re looking at the running backs.

Is Tony Pollard ready to be the top dog?

Many fans have been clamoring for Tony Pollard to be the top running back in Dallas for several years now. They’re finally going to get their wish, but it might be the worst possible time for it to happen. Pollard is coming off the best year of his career, but he suffered a high ankle sprain and fractured fibula in the Cowboys’ final playoff game last year.

Now, he’s going to be ascending to the top of the depth chart right on top of his rehab from the injury. Add to it all that the offense is changing, at least somewhat, with Mike McCarthy calling plays and Brian Schottenheimer coordinating the offense. Pollard has done nothing but deliver since entering the NFL, but this is quite a lot of pressure for a player who’s never even topped 200 carries in a season, something that 22 different running backs did just last year.

Another factor comes down to the locker room as it relates to stepping into the shoes of Ezekiel Elliott. Almost everyone could see that Elliott’s performance had slipped in recent years, but his leadership in the locker room was noteworthy. He was not only a leader in his position group, but throughout the whole team. Now, Pollard is the longest-tenured running back on the team, and it’ll be a new role he has to step into, especially if he wants to prove he deserves more than just the franchise tag after this season.

A new coach with zero experience coaching RB’s

Not only did the Cowboys lose the veteran presence of Elliott, but they also moved on from running backs coach Skip Peete after three seasons with the team. Replacing Peete and his 24 years of experience coaching in the NFL is Jeff Blasko.

Blasko had been the assistant offensive line coach in Dallas for the last three years, reuniting with Mike McCarthy after spending three seasons on the Packers staff. Like McCarthy, he’s a Pittsburgh native who got his start in the area before bouncing around to various high school and college coaching roles. Blasko was not promoted when offensive line coach Joe Philbin was let go, but instead reassigned to coach the running backs while also adding the title of run game coordinator.

It should be noted that Blasko has never coached running backs before, and this will be his first stint ever as the primary position coach. It’s a big jump to make in one offseason, especially with so much change occurring at the position as well.

Deuce Vaughn’s role

Deuce Vaughn was one of the most electric runners in college football, and the story that came out of joining his father in Dallas on draft night has only made it easier to root for him. But there’s also a reason that a guy who put up nearly 4,900 scrimmage yards and 43 touchdowns in three years fell to the sixth round: he is smol.

Seriously, Vaughn measures in at 5’5” and 179 pounds, which makes him the shortest player in the NFL now. Factor in the overly physical nature of the running back position - something that has just led to the release of both Elliott and Dalvin Cook before either turned 28 - and it’s understandable why some are concerned about Vaughn’s longevity in the NFL.

There’s also just the fact that there aren’t many sixth-round picks who play prominent roles on their teams, especially as a rookie. Vaughn has a uniquely appealing skillset, and he also has a wide open opportunity to claim the top spot in the running back rotation behind Pollard, but nothing should be considered set in stone for him yet. Vaughn is almost certainly a lock to make the roster, as he definitely wouldn’t make it through the waiver wire, but his actual role in Year 1 could look a lot of different ways. And whatever role he has will be largely dependent on how the rest of this position unfolds as well.

Is Ronald Jones already the odd man out?

Ronald Jones has won a Super Bowl in two of the last three seasons, but he didn’t see the field once in the last one and played just 19 snaps of offense for the first one. Nevertheless, he represents a solid addition as a veteran player with the ability to provide depth behind Pollard.

Still, the drafting of Vaughn, along with other names on the roster, and the persistent rumbling that Zeke might return to Dallas after all, has seen Jones portrayed as an odd man out in this position group already. The former 38th overall pick entered the league with many anticipating him to become a reliable starter, but he struggled to even see the field in Kansas City last year and is fighting for a roster spot now in Dallas.

Jones clearly has talent, and he could step up in a big way to claim the top running back spot behind Pollard this training camp despite all of the younger players he’s competing with. It would definitely be a surprise, but Jones shouldn’t be considered done just yet.

How much room is there for Hunter Luepke?

Hunter Luepke signed on as an undrafted free agent and immediately became a popular pet cat. Listed as a fullback at North Dakota State, Luepke also averaged 89 carries a season throughout his career and lined up at tight end nearly as much as he did in the backfield.

That kind of versatility makes Luepke a potentially big piece of the puzzle for this position group. He can function as a lead blocker while also filling the void from Zeke as the short-yardage back, and he’s got the frame to hold up well in pass protection too. Flexing out to tight end only adds another dimension.

The question, though, is how much use would Luepke actually see in a game? If Pollard and Vaughn have big roles, Luepke could be limited to the special teams only type of role that the Cowboys’ third running back has had each of the last three years. And if that’s the case, Dallas might be more inclined to go with one of the players who’s already held that role successfully.

What about the holdovers?

Speaking of, both Rico Dowdle and Malik Davis have had their respective go at being the RB3 for the Cowboys and have earned plenty of trust from the staff for their efforts. Dowdle has landed on the injured reserve each of the last two seasons, but he’s proved to be valuable depth when he has played.

Davis filled in nicely as a rookie last year when Dowdle went down, and even showed off some impressive ability as a runner down the stretch. Together, Dowdle and Davis represent known commodities for the Cowboys, but the additions of Vaughn, Luepke, and the veteran Jones make for a crowded positional battle.

Cowboys could go heavy here in 2023

With so many hats in the ring at running back, it’s fair to wonder how many running backs the Cowboys plan on carrying this season. Since Mike McCarthy took over, Dallas has generally only held three roster spots at the position, with that third one just being a special teams player.

That could change, though. Pollard is a lock, obviously, and Vaughn is probably safe too despite being a sixth-round pick. That would mean the final spot is up for grabs between four different players in Jones, Luepke, Dowdle, and Davis if Dallas sticks with just three spots here.

Expanding to four running backs could very well happen, especially if the fourth spot goes to someone like Luepke who has shown the versatility to play multiple positions. It could also signal a shift to a more expansive running back rotation, rather than the Elliott/Pollard tandem of the past few years.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Blogging The Boys Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your Dallas Cowboys news from Blogging The Boys