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Open Market: Cowboys should make splash at RB


(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 — Ezekiel Elliott left a bigger void than many predicted when the Dallas Cowboys opted to part ways with their record-setting running back in 2023, and head coach Mike McCarthy admits the rushing attack last season was "below the bar" for the majority of the regular season.

Pollard was able to deliver a second 1,000-yard season on the ground, yes, but as solid as his campaign was, it was middling and uneven; though some of that was also due to the carousel happening in front of him on the offensive line.

There was Dowdle as well, who had the best season of his young career, but who didn't see the field nearly as much as he would've liked, and he now joins Pollard as expected free agents.

And, speaking of free agency, a potential overhaul to the RBs room in Dallas presents a gargantuan opportunity for the Cowboys to go … say it with me: "all in" by adding a dynamic workhorse back at RB1 to reset the role going into the offseason program.

FYI: *Be sure to check out the entire ‘What’s Next?****'* series as a primer to this one.

What's Here:

Tony Pollard: It was all there for the taking in 2023, but Tony Pollard exits the season having done enough to warrant a look at being re-signed for 2024, but not enough to make any semblance of a case for taking ownership of the RB1 throne in the post-Ezekiel Elliott era. The fully-guaranteed franchise tag he enjoyed last season will likely not see a double up this time around, particularly if he's to remain in Dallas but in the capacity of returning to RB2, where he was far more explosive.

The bottom line here is Pollard is worth keeping around, but at a more reasonable price and only if the plan going forward involves putting him back where he's excelled since high school.

Rico Dowdle: It felt as if the Cowboys had learned the benefit of having a dynamic tandem at running back, as in splitting reps between their top two, but I saw little of this over the past several months. It was mostly Pollard's show and Dowdle, though very productive in his limited reps, was exactly that: limited by reps. Still, I've seen enough from a finally-healthy Dowdle that makes him an option for sticking around, but mostly in an "either/or" scenario with Pollard; and as an RB2 that would be tied to an RB1 with an entirely different skill set.

It's also key to note that Dowdle is a restricted free agent, so the Cowboys could easily keep him if they choose to, seeing as they have the right to match any offer he receives.

The Youth Movement: Say what you will about Pollard and/or Dowdle, but both showed far, far more than did any of their more youthful counterparts. Davis went from being locked in a training camp battle with Dowdle in 2022 — winning the RB3 role behind Elliott and Pollard due to a hip injury suffered by Dowdle — to struggling to make game day rosters in his second season, succumbing mostly to the addition of Luepke.

The latter was by far the best of the rest, as fellow rookie Deuce Vaughn fell flat as a rookie in a forgettable first year that ended on injured reserve. Those three are now being introduced to Snoop Conner, who was signed to a futures deal to create more competition.

All told, the Cowboys' running backs room is a massive wrinkle that needs ironing, and I'd suggest doing it both in free agency and the 2024 NFL Draft.

Let's focus on free agency at the moment, though.

What's Out There:

Note: These players will be unrestricted on March 13, barring a newly-signed deal with their incumbent team prior to that date.

Derrick Henry: I've gotta be direct here and let you know I'm not entertaining any debate that argues Henry is somehow falling off or set to, now that he's hit the age of 30 — a usual event horizon for those who play this position. Henry has always been, and remains, wildly different from most others, and his continued great play despite having logged a ton of snaps in his career readily proves this point.

This is someone who hasn't had fewer than 10 touchdowns in his last six seasons and run up more than 3,600 rushing yards (and 35 touchdowns) over the past three seasons alone, and that's despite being the entirety of the offense due to QB issues and the departure of A.J. Brown via trade to the Eagles (i.e., defenses throw the sink at him and it doesn't matter).

Bad day passing? Doesn't matter. O-line issues? Doesn't matter. The four-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL rushing leader, and two-time NFL rushing touchdowns leader (and and and), gets the job done in this league like no one you've seen in the post-Adrian Peterson era.

Sign him, Dallas. …. *tosses over a pen*

D'Andre Swift: It was a resurgent, dare I say finally a breakout, year for Swift when he joined the Eagles in 2023. He doesn't have the individual resume or alien skill set plus build of Henry — to be fair, no one does — but Swift has now proven he's able to remain healthy and an NFL starter for an entire season, and he was extremely productive in doing so. He broke the 1,000-yard mark for the first time as a pro, and has only four seasons on his tread, meaning there's a whole lot left before the former second-round pick out of Georgia presumably begins to wear down.

Hot off of a Pro Bowl nod in 2023, his first, wooing Swift would both immediately upgrade the RBs room in Dallas while simultaneously weakening the entire offense of a bitter NFC rival, and that's just good business. Swift would be less expensive than Henry, for obvious reasons, and is several years younger as well, though you'd have to balance all of that with the fact that while defenses respect Swift, they're terrified of Henry.

There are pros and cons to both, to be honest.

Saquon Barkley: Speaking of respect, you can still argue that opposing defenses have plenty of it for Barkley, a former second-overall pick of the Giants who instantly became one of the most dynamic running backs in the league as a rookie. Things have been wildly rocky ever since, however, with durability issues rocking Barkley's promising young career at nearly every turn; and uneven quarterback play and a porous offensive line allowed defenses to key in on him but, unlike Henry, Barkley struggled to consistently negate their efforts.

Still, Barkley remains one of the best in the league at the position, and that's why the Giants hit him with the franchise tag in 2023 before adding $2 million to his salary to convince him to sign the deal, and there's a solid chance they franchise tag him a second time around this offseason but, absent that happening, he's a great candidate to leave the Cowboys' rival and unite with his good friend and fellow Nittany Lion, Micah Parsons.

My issue here would be the fact Barkley is looking to finally get a large second contract, one that's eluding him right now, so he'd probably price himself out of this conversation anyway but, if he doesn't, then I'd welcome his abilities with open arms.

Honorable mention: Josh Jacobs, Austin Ekeler, J.K. Dobbins (torn Achilles), A.J. Dillon, Zack Moss — The remaining group of intriguing names are plagued with uncomfortably large paydays (Henry is really the only one I'm comfortable upping the bag for), issues with durability, having shown a recent decline in performance and/or not being the build that I believe the Cowboys require at RB1. Still, they're worth considering, but not as primary options in free agency.

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