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FRISCO, TX — For a second season in a row, there will potentially be an upheaval of some sort at the running back position by the Dallas Cowboys. In parting ways with Ezekiel Elliott ahead of the 2023 season, they passed the torch to Tony Pollard but didn't attach a multi-year contract extension to that flame.
Instead, they asked him to prove he's worthy of the RB1 throne, and looked to Rico Dowdle to spell him over the course of the season, but things never truly felt the same as the Cowboys' rushing attack was far too middling for my taste — a point that also aims at the inconsistency across the offensive line.
Behind those two stand two rookies and a second-year talent, along with a new addition via a futures deal in January that is intriguing, but unproven. There is truly no way to know how all of this shakes out ahead of free agency and the draft.
That means it's possible for a complete upheaval at the position for the first time since 2016.
Past: This is one position the Cowboys have almost always thrown capital toward, the glaring exception being when they instead flipped a running back for a historic amount of capital. That guy was Herschel Walker, and the team that got flee- … who agreed to the NFL trade that set the world on fire resides in Minnesota, in a deal that literally (and I do mean literally) launched the Cowboys into orbit as the dynasty team to beat in the early- to mid-1990s.
But, generally speaking, what an embarrassment of riches the Cowboys have had at RB in their organizational lifetime.
From Don Perkins and Walt Garrison to Calvin Hill, from Tony Dorsett to NFL all-time rushing leader Emmitt Smith, from the late Marion "The Barbarian" Barber to Julius Jones, from DeMarco Murray to Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard — with plenty of solid backs in between — if it's one thing Dallas knows how to do, it's draft and develop at this position (hell, they even turned Darren McFadden into a 1,000-yard rusher again in 2015).
They've also had missteps, however, one example being in trusting Felix Jones to carry the load as RB1 and then repeating the error with Joseph Randle, who left plenty of meat on the bone before being forced out of the league due to a list of off-the-field issues.
But, for the most part, you'd be hard-pressed to find another club as good at, more often than not, eyeing RB talent as the one in Dallas.
Present: Speaking of Elliott, well, he's not running out of the tunnel for the Cowboys in 2024 — presumably, at least. The team opted to release their former fourth-overall pick and record-setting halfback in 2023 to clear the way for the youth movement, and that thrust Pollard and Rico Dowdle onto center stage along with eventual rookies Deuce Vaughn and Hunter Luepke.
Things didn't work out the way they'd hoped, though.
Pollard was able to produce a 1,000-yard season but it was felt "quiet" and lacking the usual home-run ability he'd become known for heading into last season. Dowdle looked great in spelling Pollard but was never truly unleashed to make it a true 1-2 combo in Dallas, despite the success that came with the Sledgehammer-Sword approach during the Elliott-Pollard days.
Dowdle played in a career-high number of games and produced a career-best number of rushing yards, but the latter amounted to only 361 yards with 505 yards from scrimmage with only four touchdowns in 16 regular season tries.
Deuce Vaughn was relegated to the inactives list more often than not and ended his forgettable rookie season on injured reserve — having touched the ball only 30 times and producing just 80 combined yards with zero touchdowns and just one first down gained.
And what of Luepke? There was at least promise shown there as the season rolled along, including as a lead blocker, though he also found himself in the doghouse for a goal line fumble in an eventual 22-20 loss to the Dolphins in December.
But, again, at least Luepke showed promise and trended in the right direction, while Vaughn will enter the 2024 season behind an eight ball; and especially if the Cowboys look to add another body to compete for depth with Vaughn and Malik Davis (who is struggling to crack the active roster heading into Year 3).
Future: I suppose it's important to also mention the elephant in the RBs room here, and that's the fact that both Pollard and Dowdle are set to become unrestricted free agents when the new league year opens in March — unless a new deal is agreed to before then.
Pollard played under a franchise tag in 2023, but don't expect that to be the case again, though it's not impossible (it's just wildly impractical at a projected $12.4 million fully guaranteed). It'll be interesting to see if the Cowboys are willing to re-sign him as a bridge player for the future and/or with the goal of returning him to the definitive role of RB2 (where he excelled) to combine him with a free agency grab — Derrick Henry comes to mind here — or a mid- to late-round pick at RB in April.
Dowdle has even more tread left on his tires than Pollard at this point, though, considering his young NFL career has been marred with injury that sidelined him prior to having his healthiest and most impressive season thus far in 2023.
That said, Dowdle would be a less-expensive retention than would Pollard, though you'd have to realistically take the injury history into account, and that's not an issue Pollard has on his track record.
Things will sort themselves out this offseason at RB3, I do believe, with the Vaughn/Luepke/Davis battle providing more than enough gunpowder in that barrel; and especially when tossing in Snoop Conner, who was signed to a futures deal in January.
But with Elliott gone and both Pollard and Dowdle not currently contracted for 2024, there's a strong chance the running back depth chart looks wildly different in a few months.