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Back & Forth: RB Gets Interesting In 2023


FRISCO, Texas - With about a month into free agency, yet still more than two weeks until the draft, this is time where NFL teams usually hit the pause button for a moment.

Of course, the door isn't closed to add veterans and the draft process is well underway with meetings, interviews and we've even seen some league-wide trades to move around in the draft.

But for the most part, the dust has settled for now, knowing it will pick up significantly on April 28, the start of the draft.

So let's look back at each position, with a free-agent recap, and look ahead to see if there's more left to do.

Today, we'll continue by looking at the running back position.

What Happened:

  • Understandably, not a lot has happened at a running back position that features one of the best tandems in the NFL. Ezekiel Elliott still has five years remaining on the massive contract extension he signed in 2019, while Tony Pollard is already entering the final year of his rookie deal after making a name for himself as Elliott's primary backup.
  • From a book keeping perspective, it's worth noting that Ezekiel Elliott's 2021 salary became guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year. The team never had any intention of moving on from him, but that simple fact makes it virtually impossible.
  • "Obviously, his money is guaranteed. He's going to be here," said Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones at the NFL Combine in March. "There's no question. We're fortunate to have him."
  • The front office did make one minor addition to the room last week, signing veteran full back Ryan Nall to the roster. Nall was actually a star running back during his college career at Oregon State, finishing eighth in school history in rushing yards. But given Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy's penchant for employing a fullback – not to mention Nall's 6'2, 239-pound frame – it's a good bet he'll compete for that role. Nall played 33 career games for the Chicago Bears from 2019-21, catching nine passes for 71 yards and carrying the ball six times for 12 yards. Nall was also a key special teamer in Chicago, which is a job duty he'd likely continue with the Cowboys.

What's Next:

The future of the running back position is a lot more interesting than the present.

Here, in 2022, it's a foregone conclusion that the Cowboys will enter this season with Elliott as their top back and Pollard as his very capable No. 2. But what about after this season?

Elliott's contract makes him impossible to cut right now, even if the front office wanted to. But starting next year, that becomes much more possible. If the Cowboys want to move on from him in 2023, it would hit their salary cap for roughly $12 million and save them roughly $5 million in space. They could also designate him a post-June 1 cut, spreading that cap hit over two years and eventually saving them almost $11 million.

It's impossible to predict how that will shake out right now, as it largely depends on how Elliott plays this season. The main point is that it's a conversation the Cowboys can start having as early as next year.

Then there's Pollard. Originally drafted No. 128 overall, his role in the offense has grown each year – and he has played well enough to prompt many to wonder if he still isn't seeing enough touches. The main question is simply whether the Cowboys will seek to retain him or look for his replacement elsewhere.

There are also a few other names worth mentioning. Rico Dowdle and Sewo Olonilua are both still here after suffering season-ending injuries in training camp last summer. Nick Ralston and JaQuan Hardy, who both made the practice squad coming out of camp and made small contributions during the season, are also heading into Year 2.

Throw in Nall, and that's quite a few veteran players competing for roles during training camp this year.

Feeling A Draft?

Clearly, it's hard to justify running back as a huge position of need with all that veteran talent in place.

But the NFL draft is about more than just the coming season, and it'll be interesting to see if the Cowboys plan for the future of the position. Even if Elliott stays in place for the long term, Pollard is still slated to hit free agency next March.

The Cowboys have often used Day 3 draft picks to bolster their running back depth. Pollard himself was a fourth-round pick just three years ago, and they've also drafted Mike Weber, Bo Scarbrough, Darius Jackson and Joseph Randle on Day 3 within the last decade.

With all of that in mind, it shouldn't be a surprise if they look toward the future by drafting a youngster to learn behind Elliott and Pollard. If that pick does wind up happening, though, the logical guess is it'll happen sometime Saturday.

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