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RB Overview: How To Maximize Zeke's Talent?


FRISCO, Texas – We are still in the transition period from one season to the next. The 2019 season is in the rearview mirror, especially with a brand-new coaching staff in place.

The next step for the team is player personnel, which mostly takes place this month, in March, with the start of free agency. The first day of the new league year is March 18, although the Cowboys will have several other decisions to make before then, thanks to 25 unrestricted free agents.

Before we get too far down the road, let's take an overview at each position, finding out what they've got, what they need and some big decisions to make.

Today, we'll break down the running back position.

Coach In Charge: Skip Peete

What's old has become new with this hire. Peete is one of Mike McCarthy's many new additions to this coaching staff, but this is not his first stint with the Cowboys. As a longtime veteran of the NFL coaching game, he spent six years with the organization from 2007-12, helping develop the likes of Marion Barber, Felix Jones and DeMarco Murray.

After spending the last four years with the L.A. Rams, Peete is back in the fold and excited to get to work with Ezekiel Elliott and the rest of the Cowboys' running backs.

"I saw him up close when we played here in December," Peete said of Elliott. "He's a very explosive, talented player. He's exciting to watch. I'm excited to have an opportunity to work with him, and it should be a lot of fun."

What They Have: A Bonafide Bell Cow

It's becoming a rarity in the modern NFL, but Ezekiel Elliott is the definition of a workhorse.

Across four NFL seasons, he has piled up 1,169 career carries for a healthy average of 21 per game. The constant beating hasn't seemed to wear on him, as he currently sits on 5,405 career yards with 48 total touchdowns.

Elliott even seemed to get strong as last season went on. To be fair, he missed the entirety of training camp during a contract dispute, but it looked like he found his stride as the Cowboys continued to grind through their season. During the final six games of the year, he averaged five yards per attempt and scored five of his 12 touchdowns.

All of this is good news for a team that just signed the three-time Pro Bowler to six-year, $90 million contract extension. Not only is Elliott one of the league's most talented young running backs, he is also arguably its most durable.

Immediate Need: Some Creativity

There's an All-Pro under contract for the foreseeable future. The team just drafted a backup who showed some impressive flashes during his rookie season. There's a team option on the fullback's deal, but he is technically under contract for two more seasons.

From a personnel standpoint, it's hard to see where there is a huge need at the running back position. Perhaps they could draft a developmental prospect, but it's not as if there are a ton of snaps available to work with.

Instead, it would be fun to see this new coaching staff get a bit more creative with their current running backs. That might seem strange, given that Elliott rushed for 1,357 yards and 12 touchdowns, but it's true. For all his ability as a runner, Elliott's use in the passing game was uninspired, as he was limited mainly to checkdowns swing passes. The screen game, which Elliott has been a master of for years, often felt like an afterthought.

It was even worse for Tony Pollard and Jamize Olawale. Despite his game-changing speed and his versatility, Pollard only found his way onto the field for 177 snaps – and 35% of those snaps came in the first three weeks of the season, when Elliott was working his way back from a six-week holdout. Despite his prowess as a receiver, he managed just 15 catches on the season.

Olawale played 16 offensive snaps in the season opener, offering a glimpse at what looked like an expanded role in Kellen Moore's offense. That turned out to be a mirage, as he played just 11% of the Cowboys' offensive snaps. He did not touch the ball all season.

The Cowboys clearly have talent at running back, and they have gotten a lot out of the position. But it's not a stretch to say they could be doing more with it, and that starts with the coaching staff.

Biggest Question: Can the Cowboys Maximize Ezekiel Elliott?

The deal is done, so there's no use worrying about it. After a lengthy contract dispute, the Cowboys signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million contract extension last August. Even if he doesn't see the end of that deal, he'll be part of the Cowboys' plans for the foreseeable future.

And that's just fine, provided the Cowboys can get the most out of him. We already know Elliott is durable, so there isn't much reason to be worried about his health.

Instead, they need to be worry about his usage. If a running back is going to hit the salary cap at this kind of cost, he needs to be the focal point of the offense in more ways than one. He needs to be valuable as a runner and as a receiver, and the Cowboys need to manage that while also helping him maintain himself so he can avoid completely wearing down.

It's a challenge, but it's completely feasible. Elliott is one of the sturdiest, most talented backs in the NFL. The Cowboys simply need to utilize him that way in order to make sure this contract ages well in the coming years.

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