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3.4 reasons why Malik Davis could be the Cowboys choice at RB2

Could the second-year running back have a larger role than we thought?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The Dallas Cowboys have undergone some remodeling this offseason. Between upgrades at wide receiver, cornerback, and a big change at offensive coordinator, there will be new faces in new places this upcoming season. But one position that hasn’t received a lot of attention is running back. The Cowboys released seven-year veteran back Ezekiel Elliott back in March and they also are hedging their bet with Tony Pollard, placing the franchise tag on the team’s new lead dog running back.

With no Zeke around, the team will look to others to help facilitate the rushing attack. This includes free agent signing Ronald Jones, new sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn, and second-year UDFA Malik Davis who acted as the team’s No. 3 RB a year ago. Last week, we made some projections for all four of the Cowboys' running backs, but today we’re going to focus solely on Davis and explain why he could be in for a solid year in 2023.

1. The Cowboys are showing no sense of urgency

The team released Elliott and only has Pollard under contract for one more season. That could change if they eventually work out an extension, but for now, the team has big questions about the running back position. For that reason, many of us expected the Cowboys to go after a new running back earlier in the draft. They didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Deuce Vaughn may turn out to be a good player, but as sixth-round picks go, the odds aren’t favorable.

Not only that, the team spent a whopping $1.2 million on the free agent Jones with only $302,500 of that guaranteed. Suffice it to say, this type of investment can be released at final roster cuts without batting an eye.

Based on the little amount of attention this organization has given to upgrading the running back position, they appear relatively content. Is that because they plan on extending Pollard at some point? Maybe. But it could also be that they are satisfied with what they already have with Davis on the roster. He has already earned the trust of the coaching staff as he got the majority of first-team reps in OTAs and minicamp. Obviously, Pollard being out recovering from his leg injury is the reason for that, but this could be an early sign that Davis is viewed as the team's RB2.

2. The other guys have red flags

The reason Ronald Jones was so cheap is that his production has fallen off a cliff as of late. He was just 22 yards shy of 1,000 yards in 2020, but then saw his rushing attempts per game cut in half the following season. And then last season he only played in six games where had a total of 17 rushing attempts. While we are hoping that’s not the case, it’s possible Jones could be on his last leg in the NFL.

As for Vaughn, he enters the league at 5’6” and 176 pounds which makes him severely undersized. That’s not saying he can’t survive at the NFL level, but there isn’t a lot of history that shows that he can. People have made Darren Sproles comparisons, but Sproles was a little thicker and had 4.49 speed. Vaughn doesn’t have the extra level.

There are small running backs in the NFL as Boston Scott has carved out a role in Philadelphia with about 300 rushing yards per season. He’s been the team’s no. 3 RB in terms of rushing yards in each of the last two seasons. Scott’s actually a solid player, but that could be the ceiling for a player like Vaughn. The Patriots’ J.J. Taylor is another 5’6” running back in the NFL, but he rarely sees the field with 52 total attempts over three seasons. We don’t know where Vaughn will fit in all this as his story has yet to be told, but it would be wise to temper our expectations.

3. Special teams equal extra opportunities

Malik Davis’ chances of making the team are pretty good. Not only is he the only returning player of the backup candidates listed here, but he has earned his roster spot by also contributing on special teams. He logged 179 snaps on special teams last year (36.9%) which was the ninth-most on the team. Special teams will get you chances. If you look at the RB3 for the Cowboys over the past five years, you’ll see it filled with special teams contributors.

RB3 stat, the last five years

2022 Malik Davis 38 161 4.2 1
2021 Corey Clement 22 140 4.2 0
2020 Rico Dowdle 7 24 3.4 0
2019 No RB3 that year (only Zeke and Pollard)
2018 Darius Jackson 6 16 2.7 0

As you can see from this list, Davis leads all of them in attempts, yards, and is the only one to rush for a touchdown. It’s been really hard to find touches with both Zeke and Pollard around. You have to go all the way back to Rod Smith to find an RB3 with stronger production and it just so happens that he was also a contributor on specials teams. Oddly enough, Smith was promoted to RB2 the following year after the Cowboys released a veteran back (Alfred Morris) to package with a younger one (Zeke). Sound familiar?

3.4 He can do a little bit of everything

Davis’ versatility doesn’t just include special teams flex. His running back traits offer a little of everything. He can be a short-yardage guy, he can catch passes, and he is a willing blocker in pass protection. When you add all of that to the fact that he’s already had a year head-start over Jones and Vaughn in terms of being in the Cowboys running back room, this could give him an edge over these other guys.

It will interesting to see how the running back battle turns out, but while some are excited about the upside of the new guys, it could be the plain old vanilla Davis that helps Pollard churn out the yards in 2023.

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