Like so many positions on the Dallas Cowboys roster in 2020, the running backs saw more disappointment than encouraging play. For the second time in his career, Ezekiel Elliott did not surpass the 1,000-yard mark. He also only had two 100-yard games, the lowest single-season total of his career by far.
Elliott only carried the ball 244 times, two more than his career-low in 2017 when he was suspended six games. Still, he played in 15 games while seeing his carries limited for various reasons, averaging a career-low 65.3 rushing yards per game.
The fifth-year runner also matched his career-high in fumbles with six and now has a disturbing 21 in 71 career games. Elliott did surpass 50 receptions for the third-straight year but also averaged a career-low 6.5 yards per reception. He also put up a career-worst 4.0 yards-per-carry rate.
Overall it was a frustrating year for a player that many expected to step up and lead the offense when Dak Prescott went down. Instead, the first game after Prescott went down saw Elliott fumble twice on 12 carriers, and he never did step up as many hoped a franchise back would do.
Pollard Flashes but Needs Consistency
On the other hand, we did see Tony Pollard flash his playmaking ability numerous times over the season. With Elliott out against San Francisco, Pollard carried it 12 times for 69 yards and two scores. He also caught six of his nine targets for 63 more yards.
He finished the season with 628 total yards on 129 touches and got double-digit touches four times, which many hoped to see more after his rookie year. Still, Pollard also made some poor decisions in the return game that likely precluded him from getting even more touches.
Of course, part of the pair’s performance can be chalked up to the injuries to Prescott and along the offensive line. However, this is a group Dallas should have been able to turn to more often to slow games down and keep them close. That was not the case in 2020.
Which Cowboys Running Backs Are Returning?
Both Elliott and Pollard are back in 2021, and expectations are high given Elliott’s contract and Pollard’s flashes of brilliance. So much will be made about Prescott’s return and what it means for Dallas’ star-studded receiving core.
Still, this unit needs to continue to thrive to keep this offense balanced, and that falls on Elliott’s shoulders, as well as Pollard’s, to a lesser extent. Anything short of a 1,000-yard season from someone in the Cowboys’ backfield would be a disappointment.
Don’t Forget Us
In addition, Rico Dowdle returns after a quiet rookie season. Perhaps one of the greatest disappointments following the cancellation of preseason games last fall was missing out on the chance to see a heck of a battle between Dowdle and Darius Anderson for the third running back spot.
Dowdle only carried the ball seven times as a rookie, despite an encouraging training camp. He returns to push for a more significant role this coming season.
Sewo Olonilua also returns after spending most of his rookie campaign on the practice squad. The fullback did dress two games for Dallas but never saw time as a lead blocker.
Which Cowboys Running Backs Aren’t Returning?
After sitting out a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jamize Olawale was released this offseason. Dallas was reluctant to use a fullback in Mike McCarthy’s first year on the job, and with Sewo Olonilua on the roster, the Cowboys have a younger option in place.
What Do Cowboys Need at Running Back?
Elliott and Pollard Locked in
Unlike some of the other Tier-Two positions I’ve discussed, the running backs don’t have a ton of flexibility when it comes to contracts. Both Elliott and Pollard are expected to be here through the 2022 campaign.
After that, Pollard becomes a free agent, and Elliott’s contract becomes a possible cap-casualty with only $6.7M in guaranteed money remaining on it. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for a back to make this team and push Pollard for snaps.
Still, the reality is anyone brought in will likely compete with Dowdle for the third spot. I wouldn’t rule out a day-three addition, but it would have to be a value grab where Dallas had a much higher grade on them than the current spot they were picking.
I certainly don’t expect the Cowboys to target a running back in this class, given their current situation. However, we could see them target a fullback if that is something McCarthy or Kellen Moore see as a worthy addition to this offense.
Cowboys Draft Targets at Running Back
Room for a Playmaker
Some late day-three prospects that could be intriguing are Louisville’s Javian Hawkins, Michigan’s Chris Evans, Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elijah Mitchell, and Iowa State’s Kene Nwangwu.
Each has either elite speed or quickness, something that would be a welcomed addition to this offense. Duke’s Deon Jackson and Maryland’s Jake Funk are two others that could fit into that category as priority-free agents.
If Dallas is interested in adding competition for Olonilua, Michigan’s Ben Mason and LSU’s Tory Carter are the top prospects in this class. SMU’s Kylen Granson could be another that the Cowboys consider as a priority-free agent.