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Open Market: Aisle-Strolling for Cowboys RB Options


(Note: The content provided is based on opinions and/or perspective of the editorial staff and not the Cowboys football staff or organization.)

FRISCO, TX — Unless you've been asleep under a rock that doesn't have Wi-Fi, you're well-aware of the Dallas Cowboys' running back situation. Tony Pollard is both healing from a season-ending injury and preparing to make a decision on his NFL future as free agency approaches, and Ezekiel Elliott might find himself soon having a contractual conversation with the club, prompted by the front office as salary cap tweaks get underway.

There can be no doubt the Cowboys want to keep their dynamic duo together, but considering nothing is guaranteed in this league, it's prudent to take a peek at other expiring contracts at the position to see who might be a good fit for Dallas if things don't go the organization's way with Pollard and/or Elliott.

Malik Davis is showing great promise heading into Year 2, but is he ready to be fully thrust into the limelight? Maybe, but that's to-be-determined, and Qadree Ollison is no longer an option after signing a futures deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

It's probably safe to count out other potentially high-priced backs like David Montgomery, Jamaal Williams, Miles Sanders and Devin Singletary; and focus on who makes the most sense here.

Let's talk about it.

What's Here:

Tony Pollard:

It's safe to say Pollard is sitting atop the mountain as it pertains to NFL running backs (Jamaal Williams? Josh Jacobs?) who are heading into free agency this March, though that statement now comes attached to an unfortunate caveat. The 25-year-old suffered a fractured leg and additional ankle injury in the NFC Divisional Round loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and it's unknown how soon before he'll ready to take the field again. He will eventually, though, and there's no reason he shouldn't be every bit as explosive as he ever was prior to the injury.

The Cowboys aren't naive to this, and that's why they're still very interested in keeping him around. But Pollard's production going forward won't come cheap — landing his first-ever Pro Bowl nod after delivering career highs in rushing yards (1,007), rushing TDs (9), receiving yards (371) and receiving TDs (3) and several other categories. I'm on record as being onboard for a franchise tag here ($10.1 million), if no deal can be reached.

Ezekiel Elliott:

I'm also on record (for months now, actually) as saying I believe Elliott would be amicable to accepting a pay cut if that reduction is to keep Pollard around, i.e., keeping the RB band together in Dallas. Time will tell if he truly is, but his love for Pollard (and Pollard's love for him) is already a clear and obvious fact; the two having established a bond that is much more akin to blood brothers rather than simply teammates.

The money is the money and the business is the business, however, and that means the Cowboys will likely want to do something about Elliott's looming 2023 cap hit of $16.7 million, while also understanding his value on the field as the "sledgehammer" to Pollard's "sword" and in the locker room as one of the unquestioned leaders on the roster. There's a way to keep this tandem together going forward, but it'll take some compromise from all parties involved.

Rico Dowdle:

Sitting quietly in the background of the RB conversation in Dallas is Dowdle, who again saw what might've been a promising step forward in his young NFL career derailed by injury. Dowdle entered training camp as the true RB3 in Dallas, staving off Malik Davis and Qadree Ollison in the process, until he suffered a midseason injury that landed him on injured reserve for the remainder of the season and cleared the way for Davis to step into the role.

Dowdle, 24, now enters unrestricted free agency with not much tread having been burned off of his tires. The former undrafted halfback out of South Carolina (2020) was active in 15 games as a rookie but saw his entire 2021 season deleted by a hip injury before being available for just five games in 2022. Dowdle has a lot of potential, similar to Davis, but the injury bug is a major talking point here.

What's Out There:

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 15, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

Kareem Hunt:

Yep, you're reading my mind if you see this name and immediately think to yourself, "... but those off-the-field issues." I agree, wholeheartedly, but we also can agree that the Cowboys aren't risk-adverse to such a thing if they deem the reward might outweigh it convincingly. It's in that spirit that I feel I have to put Hunt on this list of options because, from the standpoint of production, he can most definitely get the job done between the lines.

At one point, his tandem with Nick Chubb was one of the best in the NFL and the only attraction for the Browns' offense in recent seasons. As Hunt presumably returns to free agency in March, he does so being only two seasons removed from 1,145 yards from scrimmage (with 11 TDs) and having produced a combined 1,238 yards from scrimmage (with 9 TDs) over the past two seasons; and those numbers are hard to ignore, even when factoring in risk.

Alexander Mattison:

It's the Dalvin Cook show in Minnesota, and that leaves many fans unaware of Mattison's presence for the Vikings. To this point in his career, Mattison has been mostly relegated to the role Pollard was glued to in Dallas prior to the 2022 season; but he was still able to produce 714 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns in 2021 with only four starts (active in 16 games). It makes me wonder what Mattison could be with more of an opportunity, something that would seemingly now exist with the Cowboys as they've now truly bought into the whole "RB tandem" thing.

A former third-round pick of the Vikings, it's also key to point out where Mattison attended college — earning honors as a First-Team All-Mountain West talent in the process. He hails from Boise State, and even with the departure of Kellen Moore as offensive coordinator, the Cowboys as an organization sure does love themselves some former Broncos. I'm not saying, but I'm saying.

Damien Harris:

Sticking with the youth movement at the position (yes, I'm purposefully aiming away from the roundly dreaded RB age of 30), my scouting takes me to the New England Patriots and, as such, to the film of Damien Harris. Bill Belichick grabbed Harris as a third-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of Alabama, where he won two national championships and, as such, isn't unaccustomed to the scathing hot/bright light that comes with suiting up for a the most visible team/program at its respective level.

Harris got off to a slow start as a rookie with the Patriots, playing in just two games and carrying the ball only four times, but that changed in Year 2 and he exploded in Year 3 — to the tune of 1,061 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns. Things slowed for him again in Year 4, however, as injury cost him the starting role and cut his production in half. He's not hitting the market at his peak, and that increases his value because, if he's healthy, he's a gamer.

Samaje Perine:

Perine has the benefit of being only 27 years old but also being the most experienced of this group, Hunt notwithstanding. Both he and Hunt have 76 career NFL games but Hunt has the edge in starts by a sizeable margin (+25), though Perine doesn't carry nearly the same amount of OTF risk. He's mostly been used as a perennial RB-by-committee guy since the Washington Commanders drafted him in the fourth-round of the 2017 NFL Draft, having since spent time with the Bengals (twice) and Dolphins, but he tends to produce as a complementary back.

Just last season, playing beside Joe Mixon, he ran up 681 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns, and with only two regular season starts (though available for 16). He scored one of the Bengals only two touchdowns in the AFC Championship loss to the Chiefs this past season, and he'd be a great (and inexpensive) veteran option as a one-two punch for any setup in Dallas — should they be unable to carry both Zeke and Pollard into the 2023 season and want a bit more time to develop [a very inexpensive] Davis.

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