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Cowboys running back roster review: Dallas currently has no real lead back under contract

With their top two ball carriers on expiring contracts, could the Cowboys’ RB position be headed into a major overhaul in 2024?

New York Giants v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images

There will be different degrees of change throughout the Cowboys roster this offseason. Some groups may only see minor shifts, while others may look very different in 2024. One position that could be in for huge turnover is running back, where both Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle are headed into free agency.

Pollard spent 2023 on the franchise tag and was, if this is even possible, quietly productive. Despite only having one 100-yard game all season, Pollard finished with 1,005 rushing yards, 311 receiving, and six touchdowns. He started all 17 regular-season games and in the playoffs, but his numbers were held back but career lows in efficiency. He only managed 4.0 yards per rush and 5.7 yards per catch.

Dowdle finally stayed healthy and delivered in his fourth year with the club. Playing as the backup and only appearing on 22% of the offensive snaps, Dowdle chipped in 361 rushing yards, 144 receiving, and four touchdowns. His 4.1 average per run was on par with Pollard’s, but he did fare better as a receiver with 8.5 per catch.

Both are set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Pollard is about to turn 27 and Dowdle 26; not exactly prime ages in the modern RB landscape. And after an underwhelming season running the ball, the Cowboys may feel like they’d be better off going with cheaper options and devoting their cap space to bolstering the offense line and other parts of the roster.

Dallas isn’t going to give Pollard anything close to the $10.1 million he got on the franchise tag last year. Frankly, he may not even be offered a chance to re-sign. But if the Cowboys do extend an offer, it’ll likely be a lowball that allows Pollard to explore free agency before deciding.

Dowdle would be easier to bring back, given his limited NFL profile and bad injury history. He’s a good all-around back and could be offered a chance to hang around at a backup’s salary. But again, he might see if there’s any market for his services before accepting the discount to stay in Dallas.

If neither Pollard nor Dowdle returns this year, then things get really interesting.

RBs Under Contract for 2024

  • Deuce Vaughn - $948k cap hit
  • Malik Davis - $985k cap hit
  • Hunter Luepke (FB) - $922k cap hit
  • Snooper Conner - $915k cap hit

Even the most loyal pet cat owners are going to raise an eyebrow at Vaughn or Davis being primary runners for the Cowboys next season. While they might fill out a depth chart, neither should top it based on what we’ve seen so far. This would seem to put Dallas in the market for a new RB1.

While the idea of signing a made guy like Derrick Henry, Josh Jacobs, or Saquon Barkley is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not in keeping with Dallas’ recent approach at running back. After their experiences with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, plus cap issues at other positions, this seems like the year for a “Moneyball” approach.

Perhaps they roll the dice on a free agent like Clyde Edwards-Helaire or Cam Akers, a little older but with productivity potential in the right scheme. Or maybe they look to the draft, perhaps as high as the second round, and get four years of cheap labor out of a pair of young legs. In either case, Dallas would be looking to keep cap costs low and hope for surprising production rather than giving out premium money and not getting what they paid for.

Ironically, the most expensive RB on the 2024 salary cap right now is Zeke. He’s not on the roster anymore, of course, but Dallas is still paying $6 million in dead money after his 2023 release. Yet another reason to not get back into long-term business with a veteran back.

We’ll have to wait and see if Deuce Vaughn or Malik Davis are much more than camp bodies. Despite the post-draft hype and preseason flashes, Vaughn was rarely used and unimpressive in the regular season. Davis spent the year on the practice squad but has at least proven he can do decent work with real-game touches.

It will also be interesting to see how the Cowboys view Hunter Luepke at fullback. He didn’t play much on offense, just 13% of the snaps, but was regularly seen on special teams. Perhaps another offseason will help him develop technically and physically to do more as a lead blocker and get more touches.

Clearly, questions abound at running back for Dallas’ 2024 offseason. They start at the top with Tony Pollard and Rico Dowdle’s free agency and trickle all the way through. At this point, it’s hard to predict what the depth chart will look like when the Cowboys head to training camp.

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