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Offseason | 2023

Battle Lines: RB Room Has a Great Problem in '23


FRISCO, Texas —It's been made deathly clear by head coach Mike McCarthy that moving on from Ezekiel Elliott has nothing to do with trying to replace one of the best running backs in the history of the storied franchise. To put it plainly, it's about turning to Tony Pollard and the youth at the position and asking them to take a big leap forward in 2023.

 For Pollard, that seems very likely, given his grooming to this point and the fact he made good on his promise last season: you call it and he'll haul it.

 But what of the others in the room? 

 It's a group that, without Elliott, has only two familiar veterans — i.e., Pollard and Rico Dowdle — as Malik Davis enters Year 2 and rookies Deuce Vaughn and Hunter Luepke enter their first-ever NFL training camp hoping to make a splash early. And then there's Ronald Jones, who walks in on a one-year deal but with two Super Bowl rings to show for his five-year career. 

 This will be one of the most competitive battles of any position in training camp, and below is a primer for how things look before the flight leaves for Oxnard in late July. 

What Needs to Go Right: The usual security blanket that was Ezekiel Elliott is no longer in a Cowboys uniform. Elliott was not only a staple as RB1 in Dallas since 2016, but he left as statistically the third-best running back in franchise history. The onus is now on Tony Pollard to show his breakout season in 2022 was not a fluke and while I don't believe it was, it's fair to say everyone (or anyone) not named Pollard needs to step up big.

Biggest Question: And therein lies the biggest question mark in the room, and that's the "who?". Pollard is returning from a fractured leg but no worries there, at least physically, because he was taking reps in OTAs and in mandatory minicamp. But will Ronald Jones bring his Super Bowl mojo to the roster and ward off Malik Davis and Rico Dowdle in the process? Or will rookies Deuce Vaughn and Hunter Luepke generate shockwaves in training camp??

Battle to Watch: Yes. That is to say, watch them all, because only one spot is safe heading into 2023 and that's the role of RB1, but until Pollard agrees to a long-term deal, even that one is shaky beyond this coming season and that gives everyone below him on the totem some added motivation to prove themselves. Key in on RoJo vs. the field and micro battles like Malik Davis vs. Rico Dowdle and Deuce Vaughn vs. Hunter Luepke for reps and attention. 

Bold Prediction: Given what the Cowboys were using Elliott for — short yardage and red zone offense — it makes his lost production a bit easier to replace, and so I don't believe Dallas' rushing attack will take a major step back in 2023. If things come together how I think they might with Mike McCarthy and Brian Schottenheimer coordinating things, I think the RB committee combines for 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns.  

Biggest Challenge: The addition of Brandin Cooks guarantees Dak Prescott airs the ball out more, considering and both CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup will also see a high number of targets. Then there's the young, talented tight end room that can make plays as well. This will both work in the RBs favor (backs defenses up) ... and against them (finite number of offensive reps per game).

Key Stat: Tony Pollard landed his first-ever Pro Bowl in 2022 and that honor was commensurate with his usage being the highest it's ever been. His 232 touches paved the way for 1,007 rushing yards (first-ever 1,000-yard season) and 1,378 yards from scrimmage with 12 touchdowns. He's primed to take the throne, and his franchise tag keeps the Cowboys from being in dire straits at RB in the post-Elliott era but, Ronald Jones notwithstanding, the Cowboys are severely deficient in the production category here.

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