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RB: Running Dak Helps The Backs
All this week we’re breaking down the running back position, from Pro Bowler Ezekiel Elliott's impact on the offense to undrafted rookies hoping to make the team.
By Kyle Youmans Jun 12, 2020

As we shift into the summer months of the Cowboys' offseason, we will continue to analyze the entire roster with our continued position series.

Each day, we will dissect a different aspect about the position, ranging from position battles, to under-the-radar players, to simply answering questions that have yet to be resolved.

This week, we'll dissect one of the more loaded position groups, the running back spot, by evaluating how their success could ultimately make or break the 2020 season.

Need to Figure Out

Running Dak Helps The Backs

Need to Figure Out

In terms of personnel, there's not much to debate. Ezekiel Elliott will be the starter with Tony Pollard possibly seeing more playing time and supplementing that with a fullback spot or the third running back. Those last two positions could be the ones up for grabs come training camp in Frisco. But the biggest need for the position group comes on the field in the form of play calling and how it can better involve a pair of players, including one who's not even a running back: quarterback Dak Prescott.

Let's start with Pollard first. For a player with as much elusiveness and ability to make defenders miss in the open field, there has to be a way to give him more than 20 targets in the passing game. Last season, Pollard caught 15 of those targets for 107 yards and a touchdown while he averaged 9.3 yards after the catch. All decent numbers considering the lack of action he received in the passing game which could be solved by just throwing his direction in the flat to give him the ball in space. Let's not forget that Pollard was tabbed as a RB/WR coming out of Memphis in the draft. It's about time to use him that way.

Now as for Prescott, it's no coincidence that his success running the football can directly translate to opening up the ground game as a whole. In 2019, he posted career lows in attempts (52), yards (277), and touchdowns (3) on the ground after having a career year in the run game in 2018. When a defense lines up against the Dallas offense in 2020, they will already have to be cognizant of the talented wide receivers, the receiving tight end over the middle, and whoever is in at tailback. If Prescott can show that he is a threat to run the ball as well, it turns decisions into desperation and opens up countless possibilities for the offensive play-calling to slice up a defense with the read option.

There is a ton of pressure on this offensive staff to exploit the abundance of talent in the backfield to create opportunities for this spread attack. If they succeed, the possibilities are endless for the 2020 campaign. If it's a disappointing year for the offense, it'll be another frustrating roller-coaster ride for 17 weeks this fall.

Ready to Compete

RB: Ezekiel Elliott Still Holds the Keys

Ready to Compete:

Ezekiel Elliott will still play a major role in the success of the 2020 season. This time last year, it was still in question on whether the front office was going to pay the All-Pro tailback or let him ride off into the Cabo sunset for a holdout. Either way, the deal was made, and Elliott is still the featured back who consistently makes the team better when he has the football.

Just because there is a new wealth of weapons around Dak Prescott and the passing game, doesn't mean that the running game (specifically Elliott) is obsolete. Sure, his numbers could dip some with the upgraded receiving corps. But when it comes down to effectiveness in exhausting an opponent and putting a game on ice, there are few better than Elliott.

Some critics may say that backup Tony Pollard was more effective with his limited touches during his rookie season than Elliott was last year. And yes, the surface-level stats suggest that could be the case with Pollard's 5.3 yards per carry (3rd in NFL) and Elliott's 4.5 (17th). However, just 12% of Pollard's 86 carries came with 8-plus defenders in the box while Elliott saw almost 20% stacked boxes in his 301 carries.

This new coaching staff can get Tony Pollard involved all they want, but the driver of the bus is, and will be, Ezekiel Elliott in 2020.

Don't Forget About ...

UDFAs Add Positional Depth

Don't Forget About …

There are three undrafted free agents with a legitimate opportunity to not only make the roster but see some playing time, something that hasn't necessarily been true the last two seasons. Both Rico Dowdle (South Carolina) and Darius 'Jet' Anderson (TCU) will battle with 2018 UDFA Jordan Chunn, and with the expansion from a 53-man to a 55-man roster on game days, it's possible the Cowboys elect to have a third tailback behind Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard.

Dowdle brings an extra toughness and pace to his game. His collegiate career was plagued with injuries, maybe due to his hard-nosed running style. Anderson is an elusive back who has a chance to score each time he touches the football and has an acceleration that is worthy of his 'Jet' nickname.

Dallas also signed Sewo Olonilua (TCU) to potentially expand the possibilities for the fullback position after current fullback Jamize Olawale saw just two targets in 2019. The receiving ability and short-yardage dependability of Olonilua, who split time with Anderson in the TCU backfield, is intriguing enough to experiment with the spot. Olawale has filled the fullback role admirably for the past two seasons and is still under contract until 2022.

It will be something to watch during training camp and the preseason as to how fullbacks will be utilized moving forward. McCarthy has a known track record of getting fullbacks involved. For example, John Kuhn, three-time Pro Bowler and two-time All-Pro, became a staple of McCarthy's successful Packers teams and may be the reason the position group is still relevant in the NFL.

What We Know

The Run Game Still Carries Weight

What We Know:

The running game might look different and might take a step back statistically in 2020. This offseason Dallas has added Ceedee Lamb and extended Blake Jarwin in hopes of ramping up their ability to throw the football more efficiently with Dak Prescott. It also might put the 'run to set up the throw' mentality to bed after it was the norm this past decade. Head coach Mike McCarthy instead comes from a background of letting the passing game dictate the pace while using the backfield to keep defenses off balance and guessing. Not necessarily as the focal point.

However, just because the passing game is in the limelight, it doesn't necessarily mean the run game is no longer a crucial component of winning games. Last season the Cowboys were just 2-5 with a PFF rushing grade of 70 or lower, while they were 6-3 in games above that mark. The only losses of the sort were against Green Bay and New Orleans in back-to-back weeks, then New England in Week 12. For those keeping score, there were only seven games last year with a passing grade higher than 70, with a pedestrian 4-3 record.

There will be plenty of time over the upcoming months to debate who should get the majority of touches and what big contracts should be handed out. But there is no debate on whether the ground game, led by Ezekiel Elliott, will play a crucial role. It just may look a little different than in years past.

What's New?

New Staff the Biggest Addition?

What's New?

Entering the offseason, there were many questions surrounding different positions on this Cowboys roster. Contract negotiations, retiring players, and new additions are storylines that normally dominate any NFL offseason, but not for the Dallas running back situation.

A relatively untouched and quiet offseason for the group keeps both Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard as the featured tailbacks that'll see the majority of the playing time. While there are some undrafted competitors entering the fray, the biggest additions to the position may actually be the new coaching staff and what they can bring to the table for the dynamic duo.

With head coach Mike McCarthy, critics may ask, 'Who was the most prolific back that he produced in Green Bay?' And the answer would most likely be James Starks or Eddie Lacy, neither a part of the 2010 Super Bowl roster, nor the main attractions through the multiple playoff runs. However, McCarthy said it best himself earlier this offseason, that he has never had a stable like this one. One that is full of talented backs to work with, well above the level of players he had in the backfield earlier in his coaching career.

The argument could also be made that he never had a running back coach as talented and experienced as Skip Peete either. Peete has an extensive resume that includes instructing players like Marion Barber, DeMarco Murray, Todd Gurley, and even Pro Football Hall of Famer Curtis Martin during his college days at the University of Pittsburgh. This will be the first season that he'll work with both Elliott and Pollard after his first stint with the Cowboys came to a close in 2012. Elliott and Pollard, paired with offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, could ultimately push the rushing offense to the next level after already posting the fifth-best rushing numbers in 2019.

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