Cowboys 2023 position preview: What to do with in-house RB options

The Dallas Cowboys have a running back history like few other teams in the NFL. With two rushers on the league’s rushing top-10 list, including having Emmitt Smith atop the standings, the Cowboys are an organization that churns out top RBs regularly.

Their most recent success stories have been Ezekiel Elliott, with two rushing titles and four 1,000-yard rushing seasons in his seven seasons, and Tony Pollard, a fourth-round pick who has surpassed all expectations in becoming the best runner in Dallas. The duo has become one of the league’s top RB tandems in that last few years, but things are about to change.

Elliott is at a crossroads with the Cowboys, who probably don’t want to pay his $10.9 million salary while they’re up against the cap. He’s been a valued asset since the team drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2016, but Elliott’s production no longer matches his cost. The team is likely to ask Elliott to take a pay cut to stay or release the franchise’s third-leading rusher of all-time.

The answer could come as early as next week’s NFL combine, where Elliott’s representatives will gauge his worth. No matter what happens, it’s obvious Elliott won’t be making near what he was scheduled to make.

The Cowboys would be wise to move on from Elliott, but given their love for the former rushing champion, that isn’t a foregone conclusion. Elliott does serve a purpose as one of the league’s short-yardage backs after scoring 12 touchdowns last year, however, his best days are clearly behind him.

If Elliott is released, the Cowboys could look to his running mate of the last four years as the replacement.

Pollard has been sharing the load for much of the last two seasons, but he surpassed Elliott as the elite option in the backfield. Not only was Pollard the best running back on the Cowboys, but he was one of the best backs in the league in 2022.

Pollard surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career, despite not logging 200 carries, averaging 5.2 yards a pop, third-best in the NFL.

The shifty runner out of Memphis made plays all season long and had 12 total touchdowns. Despite being one of the better units in the league, Dallas’ offense didn’t have many game breakers, yet Pollard always seemed to be creating an explosive play. The Cowboys lacked speed on offense, but Pollard brought that element and more.

Pollard’s explosiveness was shown almost weekly. He had at least one 20-yard gain in eight of his 16 games, while scoring on five plays of 30 or more yards during the season. Without him the Cowboys wouldn’t have a home run threat at RB on the roster.

This is where the team needs Pollard, who is set to become a free agent. The Cowboys do not have enough big-play weapons on offense and losing Pollard would be a major blow, a fact isn’t lost on the decision makers for the organization.

The team appears ready to place the franchise tag on Pollard to keep him around for at least one more season at just north of $10 million. It’s not an ideal salary for a RB on a team trying to find cap room, but it is equal to the savings that would come from releasing Elliott.

Dallas could also choose to re-sign Pollard to a multi-year deal. That would keep Pollard with the team for a few more seasons and would likely lessen the cap hit for the upcoming year.

The argument against doing a longer deal is that teams shouldn’t pay running backs, even really good one’s in the prime of their careers. Pollard will be 26-years old at the start of the upcoming season and doesn’t have a ton of wear and tear on his legs, but the theory at RB is the younger, the better.

Pollard’s situation is made even more interesting because of the Pro Bowl runner’s significant injury suffered in the team’s season-ending loss, and his broken leg clouds the offseason picture. There’s a projected timetable of a three-month recovery from surgery and just how the injury affect Pollard’s speed and ability for next season is unknown. It’s expected that Pollard should be ready for training camp without issue, but the injury adds another layer of intrigue to the decision for the Cowboys.

It could cloud Pollard’s long-term deal market and make him available for cheaper than the tag as a one-year rental.

There is another avenue the team could drive down. If the Cowboys move on from Elliott and choose to allow Pollard to hit free agency, the team could pair last year’s unrestricted free agent RB Malik Davis with a draft pick to share the RB work. Davis had an impressive pre-season last year and performed well when called upon as a rookie, averaging over four yards-per-carry and finding the end zone on a 23-yard touchdown run.

If Elliott is released, Davis would be the only current RB on the roster with a contract for the 2023 season. Without Elliott and Pollard, the team would likely use a fairly high draft pick on an RB.

It also wouldn’t be a complete surprise to have all three RBs back for the upcoming season. The front office loves Elliott, as does the QB, so a tough decision must be made on his future, as well as for Pollard’s.

There’s plenty of intrigue and uncertainty in the Cowboys’ backfield. Dallas is playing running back roulette this offseason, and what happens is anybody’s guess.

You can chat with or follow Ben on twitter @BenGrimaldi

Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire