FRISCO, Texas - When it comes to the running back room, it's chandelier-clear who the Dallas Cowboys have penciled in at No. 1 and No. 2. Things weren't exactly unclear going into training camp in determining who had the lead at No. 3 - i.e., Rico Dowdle - but rookie running back Malik Davis has found ways to muddy that water heading into the final preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Davis, an undrafted free agent signed in April, has pieced together an impressive last several weeks at camp and the attributes routinely put on display in team practices are spilling over into scrimmages and, more importantly, preseason games.
His success creates a very poignant question as the Cowboys work to reduce their roster ahead of the August 30 deadline: is Dallas open to carrying four running backs on their active roster?
Dowdle entered camp healthy and fully recovered from a hip injury that cost him the entirety of what might've been a very promising 2021 season, and he's showed no signs of having lost a step - neither in practices, scrimmages nor games - and running backs coach Skip Peete notably cast his early vote for RB3 in early August; but also left the door open for Davis and Aaron Shampklin to find a way to enter the conversation.
"They're all challenging for that role [of RB3]," said Peete in Oxnard. "But if we had to play a game tomorrow? Rico has really shown that he's matured a lot and has a complete understanding of what we're doing. If you would've asked me two years ago, I would've probably said it's wide open.
"But, right now, I think he's kind of distanced himself from those other guys a little bit because of his ability of being here and understanding what we're doing - he has two months under his belt versus six months. Those two other guys are pretty talented as well. The way they've picked up the system has been very, very impressive, and I wouldn't put anything past those guys challenging anybody."
Peete's words were seemingly prophetic when considering what Davis has done in his first two NFL preseason games. A quick comparison to Dowdle's numbers (and Shampklin as well) illustrate the point entirely, so let's do a side-by-side-by-side of all three Cowboys halfbacks.
2022 Preseason (Week 1 + Week 2):
- Dowdle - 22 carries, 80 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
- Davis - 16 carries, 88 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD
- Shampklin - 15 carries, 52 rushing yards
- Dowdle - 1 target, 1 reception, 8 receiving yards
- Davis - 5 targets, 4 receptions, 24 receiving yards
- Shampklin - 2 targets, 1 reception, 0 receiving yards
It's safe to assume Dowdle, who is entering his third year in the system, has done enough to this point to warrant remaining the third back on the roster, but it's also true that Davis' numbers and ceiling can't be ignored - e.g., 5.5 yards per carry and six yards per reception (qualifier: minimum five targets) - and there's another attribute the latter has shown in recent games: his ability to be disruptive on special teams.
Davis had more than one noticeable play on special teams against the Chargers, and that puts him on the radar of special teams coordinator John "Bones" Fassel as much as his ability as a halfback makes him a blinking red dot on the grid of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore.
And, with that, it's time for a proposition.
Peete has already unveiled the Cowboys plan of utilizing the third back heavily in 2022, but that will also unfortunately increase the chances of injury to whomever gets that nod (Dowdle, presumably).
"When you utilize two guys quite a bit in the game at the same time, your third back has got to be heavily involved," said Peete. "It's going to be a guy that will probably play a little more than the typical third back would play."
This means keeping Davis as RB4 makes perfect sense, for that reason alone, but there's the added justification of his aforementioned (potential) value to special teams along with the uncertainty surrounding the future at the position atop the depth chart, with Elliott's contract becoming another talking point in the same offseason that will see Pollard become a free agent for the first time in his NFL career.
Additionally, considering the Cowboys no longer have an active fullback on the roster after Ryan Nall was waived/injured in the cutdown from 90 men to 85, you can add that to the argument of why the club should avoid risking Davis to waivers with the hopes of having him re-sign to the practice squad.
The next question that just crossed your mind is an obvious one, of course:
What position would need to sacrifice a body to execute this plan?
For one possible answer to this question, you could swivel your retinas over to the tight end room. It's not exactly been an all-out war at tight end this summer, with Dalton Schultz being as consistently productive as ever in practice(s) and when scrimmaging, and he's doing all he can to keep his stock high as he enters a season that will see him play under the franchise tag.
You have to love what rookie fourth-round pick Jake Ferguson is already displaying, but he's not yet to the point of challenging for TE1, though he is most certainly giving Sean McKeon a run for his money.But, absent an injured Ian Bunting, and barring a stellar "look at me" outing from undrafted rookie tight end Peyton Hendershot against the Seahawks, you'd be hard-pressed to make an argument for carrying four tight ends to begin the season.
The team could arguably be just fine with Schultz, Ferguson and McKeon at the position when they kick things off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 11 - the ideal scenario here being Hendershot having found his way to the practice squad for any possible call-up in the near future (or potentially a claimed/signed free agent that falls from one of the other 31 NFL trees over the next two weeks, should Hendershot be lost to another club).
Hendershot has a lot of potential and is a favorite of tight ends coach Lunda Wells, but a missed block in the back call against the Chargers saved him from being the thief of one of KaVontae Turpin's touchdown returns in Los Angeles, and while he's developing nicely overall throughout camp, he's not yet challenging for TE2 (or TE3?).
If the team is truly (finally) hellbent on getting Elliott and Pollard on the field at the same time in a number of variations this coming season, Peete is correct in that they will need to ask a lot of their RB3, and that means not being afraid of carrying a fourth helmet in that room that would then mean carrying one less helmet in a different one.
Hey, no one ever said trimming a roster was easy, and these are the types of tough discussions the Cowboys have waiting for them.