The Dallas Cowboys released Ezekiel Elliott this offseason. Zeke led the team in rushing in six of the last seven seasons, but unfortunately, the one year he didn’t was last season. His progressively decreasing yards per carry hit a career low of 3.8, resulting in the end of the line for him in Dallas.
Tony Pollard is now the new sheriff in town, however, the team has not signed him to a long-term deal. Instead, they franchise tagged him for $10.1 million in 2023, leaving his future with the Cowboys in limbo.
And finally, in an RB-rich draft, the Cowboys didn’t select a new ball carrier until pick 212 when Deuce Vaughn was the 14th running back taken.
In short, the Cowboys have a lot of questions at running back as they enter the new season, but today, we’re going to do our best to set some expectations. Here is a breakdown of the four main running backs on this team and what we’re likely to see in 2023.
The Cowboys have loved Pollard from the get-go, selecting him in the fourth round despite being a backup in Memphis. He’s been a perfect complementary player to Elliott over the years but has now emerged as the lead dog as the run production is just better with the ball in his hands. In fact, Pollard led the Cowboys in rushing despite not leading them in rushing attempts. That’s a feat that has only been done one time before on a Cowboys’ team and it was over 50 years ago.
What he brings to Dallas: Make no mistake about it, Pollard brings explosiveness to the Cowboys' running game. He’s elusive, he’s tough, and he has the home run speed to empty the bases.
What could hold him back: If the Cowboys are planning on increasing his usage after the departure of Elliott, it could mess with his overall efficiency. He’s never been a workhorse back, and the coaching staff seems to feel he loses some juice when overused.
The Cowboys made a low-cost free agent investment in Jones hoping to see the player closer to that who led the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in rushing back in 2020 instead of the 18-touch guy in Kansas City last season. This makes Jones a bit of an enigma as he just wasn’t a good fit in a high-volume passing team like the Chiefs who already had a handful of quality pass-catching backs on the roster. With Dallas, he fits more as an early-down power back to complement Pollard, and it’s not hard seeing this marriage work out great as there are traits that make this once 38th overall pick from USC a nice addition to the team.
What he brings to Dallas: He’s a north and south runner who keeps those legs churning. His ability to go from speed to power back to speed has generated some nice plays on tape. With Elliott now gone, Jones is the Cowboys back who possesses the most pop.
What could hold him back: Lack of concentration, ability to execute his assignments, and struggles in pass protection could limit his opportunities if those things persist.
An undrafted free agent from a year ago, Davis saw action in a dozen games last season, although most of those snaps came on special teams. The rookie did see some work in the backfield when Zeke and Pollards each missed different games throughout the year as well as a couple of garbage time wins against Minnesota and Indianapolis. Davis adds a very unsexy yet efficient runner to the group. The experience he gained last year combined with another year of camp will continue to slow things down for him and help his mental processing. But while he’ll have moments where he impresses, he’s never going to be a player who will run away with the job.
What he brings to Dallas: He’s a utility knife player who can catch passes, run between the tackles, and is solid in pass protection. With a year of special teams experience already under his belt, his value to the team stretches further than other backs on the roster.
What could hold him back: While he’s good at a lot of things, he doesn’t excel in any areas. He doesn’t possess home run speed, or shiftiness to create things on his own, and he’s relatively easy to bring down.
The small stature of this Kansas State star back made him fall all the way until the sixth round of the draft, but it doesn’t make his college highlights any less impressive. He has the vision and relentless push to get through the running lanes. He can catch passes and has a nose for the end zone. His body of work shows he can get it done, but a lack of breakaway speed and struggles picking up the blitz could limit his opportunities.
What he brings to Dallas: He’s a shifty runner who can sneak through creases. In a way, he’s like a watered-down extension of Pollard who could sprinkle in some splash plays to this offense.
What could hold him back: Size. It’s always going to be size with him. Vaughn will need to show that faster, strong NFL defenders won’t capsize the skills that made him a college wonder.
He should see an uptick in usage with Zeke gone but don’t expect the team to go overboard as they don’t want him wearing down. His efficiency should drop, but his trips to the end zone should increase with a few extra goal-line opportunities.
Projection: 226 carries, 1,040 yards (4.6 ypc), 12 TDs
The opportunity is there for Jones to take on the lion’s share of Zeke’s work in a one-two-punch running game with Pollard. He’s the team’s most experienced back behind TP and he should at least garner short-yardage and goal-line work.
Projection: 132 carries, 580 yards (4.4 ypc), 6 TDs
This running back could be the biggest surprise of the group as he could slide into the RB2 role if things aren’t working out with Jones. He’s a solid player who has some experience and that could be good enough to carve out a role in the backfield.
Projection: 68 carries, 347 yards (5.1 ypc), 3 TDs
Expectations are high for this late-round rookie, but it’s important to stay grounded as Vaughn has a lot of factors working against him. Unless he picks up things quickly, don’t be surprised if he rides the pine for the majority of the season.
Projection: 38 carries, 161 yards (4.2 ypc), 1 TD