For the first time in eight seasons, the Dallas Cowboys will be without their once-All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott. But in the absence of one, there is an opportunity for another, and that opportunity will be given to fifth-year back Tony Pollard. After being drafted in the fourth round in 2019, the former Memphis backup has gradually worked himself more and more into the Cowboys offense as his touches have increased every year (101, 129, 169, and 232). His usage last year only trailed Zeke by just 16 touches.
While it’s clear that Pollard will be the lead back in Dallas, what is not clear is how they plan on using the other guys. Behind Pollard, they have sixth-round rookie Deuce Vaughn. The 5’6” Kansas State running back created a buzz during the preseason with some nifty escapes. They also have Rico Dowdle. While Dowdle is technically entering his fourth season, he does not have much experience in this league. In fact, he hasn’t had a single touch over the past two years due to injuries and being buried behind Zeke and Pollard. Finally, the team also has rookie fullback Hunter Luepke, an undrafted free agent who looks to give the team a little extra diversity in the backfield.
With so many options, how will the Cowboys divvy out the work? Before we dive into that, let’s first take a look at how the offensive touches were distributed last season.
- Ezekiel Elliott played 558 snaps, had 231 rushing attempts, and 23 receiving targets
- Tony Pollard played 569 snaps, had 193 rushing attempts, and 55 receiving targets
- Malik Davis played 79 snaps, had 38 rushing attempts, and seven receiving targets
Whether you go by offensive snaps or touches, the percentages are practically the same. He is how the work was spread around last year...
Last year, the Cowboys employed a two-back attack as Davis’ small amount of action only came when one of the other guys missed time due to injury or from late in the game garbage time. Things will look a little different this time around.
With Elliott gone, the obvious line of thinking is this will significantly boost Pollard’s overall workload. We think it’s safe to say he’ll see an uptick in total touches, but it might not be the volume some fantasy experts are projecting. Pollard has never had a workhorse role and we’ve seen glimpses where he “loses some juice” as the game progresses where he’s made some big plays. The Cowboys would be wise to use Pollard strategically and that might involve a moderate dose of work throughout the season so he’s not overextended. He’s the team’s most explosive player on offense and it would be wise to keep those legs as fresh as possible.
Projection: Plays 584 snaps with 218 carries and 47 receiving targets
Finally, the time has come when we get to see Dowdle in action, and action we will see as he should be in line for the most touches after Pollard. Despite being a different type of runner, Dowdle complements Pollard quite well. While Pollard is more explosive, they both have similar characteristics and can be used interchangeably. Dowdle’s ability to pass protect and contribute as a receiver makes him a good third-down option, but he also has the power and vision to handle early down work as well. The Cowboys don’t have to change their offensive strategy between the two.
We would be remiss to not mention Dowdle's extensive injury history. He has only played in two NFL games where he had a rushing attempt, and as we mentioned earlier none of them have occurred over the last two seasons. Should he again succumb to bad luck health, then look for the Cowboys to elevate Malik Davis from the practice squad and slide him into Dowdle’s role.
Projection: Plays 353 snaps with 138 carries and 22 receiving targets (Dowdle & Davis combined)
Let’s be honest, whenever no. 42 trots onto the field, it’s going to be hard to contain our excitement. He has big-play ability, but he needs creases to operate. Vaughn is not going to be one of those runners breaking arm tackles and moving piles. His bread and butter will be to get into space and rely on swift cuts to turn small gains into big ones.
Vaughn will serve as the team’s change-of-pace back where defensive coordinators will have to adjust how they approach him. How effective he is will define his true role as the season progresses. If he’s splashy, he’s going to get more opportunities, but if he’s outputting a lot of runs for no gain, his reps will be cut back.
Projection: Plays 234 snaps with 95 carries and 11 receiving targets
From one exciting rookie to another, the team’s new fullback is also a fan favorite. His playing time will depend on how well he’s able to handle his blocking assignments. If he’s reliable, he’ll see the field more, but if he struggles, the team will call upon the more reliable, but less sexy Sean McKeon to handle the gig. From a target perspective, his workload should be small. He’ll get some short yardage carries and work out of the backfield as a receiver at times but don’t expect him to be a regular part of this offense. There are just too many mouths to feed and a lot more talented touches ahead of him.
Projection: Plays 35 snaps with 11 carries and 5 receiving targets
Here’s how this year’s workload distribution could look...