Stephen Jones seemed to understand his comment was unexpected.
The Dallas Cowboys executive vice president acknowledged his perspective represented his opinion and only one opinion. Then he admitted: The pick he’s gearing up to select at 26th overall may not be a prime candidate for a second contract. And that’s OK.
“What I would say to you if you’re picking in the top 10, 12, 15, wherever you want to make the cutoff, you really are thinking, ‘Boy, we really have to have a second contract out of that deal,’” Jones said at the Cowboys’ pre-draft news conference. “So does it affect you when you’re thinking about a running back when you’re up that high? Yes.
“As you start to really look and move down the draft, you’d like to hope you’ll have success that that player’s going to be [worth] a second contract. But it’s in my opinion — one opinion — not as necessary that you have to get to that second contract.”
Cue the speculation surrounding the Cowboys drafting a running back.
It’s almost a given, as Cowboys brass acknowledged Monday, that they will draft a running back. Dallas released seven-year veteran and three-time Pro Bowl running back Ezekiel Elliott last month, placing a franchise tag on explosive back Tony Pollard while also factoring in 2022 undrafted free agent Malik Davis as depth.
Elliott’s loss stemmed more from the relative value at his price tag than a belief he cannot play anymore. Team owner and general manager Jerry Jones insisted Monday that Elliott remains an “outstanding” player, and though his burst and efficiency have dipped as he ages (his 3.8 yards per carry last year were a career low), his productivity still translated to 12 touchdowns last season.
So the Cowboys must fill a hole created by his vacancy, a hole that looms even more pressing as Pollard recovers from a leg fracture suffered in January.
Dallas is not counting out drafting a running back in the first round.
“If you happen to see a back there at the bottom of the first that’s rare and unique and he falls because he’s a running back? I’d have to think we’d be considering it,” Stephen Jones said. “Especially if we thought he should have been picked in the top half of the draft, but maybe because he is a running back, he’s fallen a little bit. And obviously a lot of these backs can come into the NFL and play right away and play at a high level right away.
“Zeke proved it. Emmitt [Smith]. We’ve been fortunate enough to have backs like that.”
The posturing inevitably led fans to wonder: Could the Cowboys trade up for, or let fall to them, Texas Longhorns All-American running back Bijan Robinson?
“If they have the chance to draft me, I think it’d be something special with the running back they do have now in Tony Pollard,” Robinson told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday over Zoom, speaking on behalf of Old Spice. “Obviously I want to go anywhere and am happy to be anywhere.
“We could talk about it all we want, but we’ll just see on Thursday if it happens.”
Bijan Robinson’s vision for how he’ll change the game
Robinson’s production and raw talent indicate he’ll come off the draft board long before pick No. 26, and arguably even before the Cowboys could prudently trade up. He racked up 3,410 rushing yards and 41 total touchdowns as a Longhorn, marks that rank fourth all-time in school history despite Robinson leaving after just three seasons. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and 13.4 yards per reception.
Robinson touts his versatility to the decision-makers who will determine his NFL landing spot.
“I’m a guy who can play receiver, play slot, play running back and have just as much of the same effect as when I am playing running back,” Robinson said. “You have a guy who can do all those type of things for their offense and your team and become a game-changer in that type of way? I think that’s when the value really comes in.”
Yahoo Sports NFL expert Charles McDonald slotted Robinson as the seventh most talented prospect in his top-100 rankings and the only running back to crack the top 40 spots (Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs and Tulane’s Tyjae Spears ranked 42 and 43, respectively).
But Robinson’s draft slot will be as influenced by the NFL’s shifting perception of running back value as it will by his talent and playmaking. Modern NFL offenses favor the pass. Front offices increasingly view physical running backs who absorb punishing blows skeptically, concerned about their longevity and the risk of an asset deteriorating more rapidly than at other positions.
Robinson often watches San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who averaged 110 yards per game after the 49ers traded for him last year. McCaffrey collected 67.8 of those by ground and 42.2 by air. McCafreey scored 40% of his 10 touchdowns in 11 games via receptions.
“He’s such a big part of his offense,” Robinson said. “And for me, I can do the exact same thing for whichever team I end up at. You definitely said it the right way, that hybrid. That’s what I think the running back position value should go to now.”
How Robinson’s tackle-breaking, sure hands would benefit Cowboys
When asked for a play that sums up how he will threaten at the NFL level, Robinson needs two because, well, he’s marrying two skill sets to make plays.
He points to the post route he ran in a 24-21 win over Iowa State, Robinson first beating the safety with his release and then needing just one hand to bring in a ball that was thrown higher than intended.
Texas RB Bijan Robinson recorded his fifth straight 100-yard rushing performance in a 24-21 win over Iowa State this past weekend. Robinson also proved that he can catch the football.https://t.co/LvhYFTH39Gpic.twitter.com/zykMCZcAgU
— Danny Davis (@_dannydavis) October 17, 2022
“That’s the play coaches look at and go, ‘All right, this dude can do some things,’” Robinson said.
Then he describes an inside zone run where he cut to one side, and then the other, of the field. Robinson outraced the defenders chasing him down en route to a deep touchdown. A conversation about Robinson that doesn’t include his tackle-breaking ability isn’t a complete conversation about him.
— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) October 22, 2022
“It’s a lot of film study obviously,” Robinson said. “How you look at angles on defenders and how you set defenders up is really big in how you can break a lot of tackles. For me, I look at, we call it in football the ‘quarter’ so it’s the shoulders and my shoulder angles. I think I can do a really good job of dissecting the angle I’m trying to take against a defender. I think obviously that’s a gift from God [and one I’ll] keep working on.
“It’s one of the things I love to do.”
Soon, Robinson will find out which team will employ his play-making skills and analytical approach. The Cowboys will be watching closely to see if he falls within their range, a chance to tag-team with Pollard in 2023 and then to provide stability for years to come — whether on one contract or more.
“When you lose a guy like Zeke, you want a young guy coming in here,” Stephen Jones said. “Who’s to say at what point that would be whether it’s first, second, third or fourth who knows where that might come up. But certainly a spot where, if the right guy were there …
“As we go through the draft, I can’t imagine [a running back’s] not going to get a lot of attention in terms of us going through what he can do for our football team.”