PHOENIX – The Cowboys’ game plan in free agency is crystal clear by now. The strategy has been repeated so often that it can be recited by memory.
Rather than splash cash on overpriced free agents, the front office opts for small, smart signings that address their needs. By doing that, the Cowboys free themselves up to make the smartest possible decisions in the NFL draft.
That’s all well and good, but there’s one obvious spot where the Cowboys haven’t followed that directive this offseason – the running back position.
Of course, Dallas still employs one of the best running backs in football. His name is Ezekiel Elliott. But the problem isn’t their two-time All-Pro, it’s the depth behind him – or rather the lack of it.
Speaking at the NFL’s annual meetings on Monday, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones acknowledged that fact, and he said it’s something that’s still being looked at.
“We are still looking at that in free agency. That may even be done after the draft,” Jones said. “But I would agree with you. The way we have structured our offense and the importance we have in our offense of using the running back -- Zeke in that case -- we need to make sure we can rest him when we want to, take some snaps off of him when we want to. Or in case we need to, have a really talented running back in there.”
The Cowboys’ depth issues were exposed at times last season. Elliott took a beating, carrying the rock 304 times and snagging another 77 receptions, and it was obvious he was playing through various bumps and bruises throughout the season.
But with Alfred Morris departing in free agency and Darren McFadden retiring, the Cowboys didn’t get the same juice out of backup Rod Smith. In his third year with the team, Smith received just 44 carries on the year and averaged just 2.9 yards per touch.
Smith isn’t currently under contract. The Cowboys’ only other options are Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn, with six career carries between them, and fullback Jamize Olawale, who re-signed earlier this month and has enough versatility for spot carries if needed.
“We’ve got the expectations we’ve got from Zeke,” Jones said. “We’ve got to be focused on having a really good backup for him.”
That has prompted some debate about how exactly the Cowboys would prefer to spell their Pro Bowler. In the past, there has been a preference for a scat back to complement the lead running back. The Cowboys tried for years to find a role for Lance Dunbar, and they tried to draft Donnel Pumphrey in 2017. When they traded for Tavon Austin last spring, they touted his abilities in a similar fashion – although that never materialized.
This time around Jones was clear about what he’s looking for, and that’s a well-rounded backup more so than a complementary player.
“We can't and I don't expect to have a substitute for Zeke, but someone who can do what Zeke does -- which is not necessarily a change of pace guy,” he said.
The Cowboys have already made it clear they’ll be looking at running backs in the draft next month. If that doesn’t materialize, there are several proven veterans currently available in free agency.
One way or another, the Cowboys clearly intend to upgrade their depth.