With training camp weeks away, it’s a good time to start breaking down the Dallas Cowboys roster position by position to see what this 2021 bunch will look like and which players are competing to make the team. Dallas had a lot of injuries a year ago, forcing a number of young players and reserves to step into more prominent roles. They also drafted 11 players, meaning there will be a ton of competition for the final roster.
In addition, America’s Team will be doing this in front of the entire world, since they were chosen as the featured team on HBO’s Hard Knocks. With that being said, let’s take a look at the running backs vying to make the 53-man Dallas Cowboys roster this year.
Dallas Cowboys Roster Breakdown: Running Backs
The Locks | Dallas Cowboys Roster
Ezekiel Elliott, Tony Pollard
The pair of Elliott and Pollard offer so much for Dallas. For starters, Elliott has garnered praise
from those inside the Cowboys facility about his physique and performances in the offseason program.
That is certainly good news, assuming that hard work transfers over to the game field. Having a quicker, more elusive version of Elliott would be a huge benefit considering he’s only got seven carries of 20 yards or more over the past two years (545 carries).
Adding some big-play ability to his game would make Elliott the kind of complete runner he was when Dallas drafted him in 2016. He’s continued to be one of the better pass protecting backs in the league and has hauled in 50 or more receptions in each of the last three seasons.
In addition, Pollard has shown the kind of flashes the Cowboys envisioned when they drafted him in the fourth round in 2019. He’s got exceptional playing speed that teases the kind of big-play ability Elliott lacked.
While Pollard hasn’t made the kind of impact Dallas hoped for as a pass-catching back, part of that has to do with Elliott’s growth in that area as well as his ability to pass protect. Still, the third-year back out of Memphis is usually one of the first names fans clamor for when discussing who needs more touches in this offense.
With both expected to be around for at least the next two years, Dallas looks pretty comfortable at the position. However, this offensive line needs to stay healthy in front of them, and this defense can’t put the Cowboys in early holes where they have to abandon the run game.
Fighting for a Job | Dallas Cowboys Roster
Rico Dowdle, Sewo Olonilua, Nick Ralston, JaQuan Hardy, Brenden Knox
This coaching staff will have some tough decisions filling out the end of this roster, and keeping a third running back is going to be one of them. A year ago, Dowdle was able to shine enough during training camp to convince the Cowboys to keep a third running back while Jamize Olawale was part of the franchise for a third-straight year.
With preseason games returning this year, this group will have plenty of opportunities to make their case. There may not be many chances for a third back when we get to the regular season, but talent has a way of creating opportunities.
Room for Three?
If a third running back is going to make the roster, special teams will be part of the job description. Dowdle only carried the ball seven times last year, but he did collect four tackles on special teams.
That gives him an upper hand on Hardy and Knox if Dallas wants to keep a third true running back. Knox has a similar build and could prove his worth on special teams as well, and both are strong runners that can handle a between-the-tackles role in case of an injury.
Dowdle also returned four kicks, including one for 64 yards. However, with Pollard and CeeDee Lamb likely returning to their roles returning kicks and punts, there may not be many opportunities there.
Still, Dowdle proved he could help there a year ago, and Hardy’s elusive running style could be a factor in that role too. As a running back, there isn’t a ton of room to carve out a role as a pass-catcher or protector or even a short-yardage back.
At the end of the day, proving to be a capable runner as insurance to an injury is really the best chance one of these three has at making the team. That, and of course, being a contributor on special teams.
Keeping a fullback?
In Elliott’s best year (2016), Dallas had Keith Smith leading blocking for him. Smith was with the Cowboys for the first two years of Elliott’s career, in which he averaged well over 100 yards per game.
Kellen Moore was part of those teams and may seek a lead blocker to help him improve on his career-low 4.0 yards per carry and 65.3 yards per game he produced last year. While Olonilua was on the practice squad in his first year out of TCU, he will have some competition from Ralston.
Both have the build for the position, though Ralston has more experience as a lead blocker. At TCU, Olonilua was a big runner that occasionally played some H-back. Ralston started his career as a linebacker at Arizona State before transferring to Louisiana-Lafayette, where he played as a fullback and H-back.
Like the third running back position, if Dallas keeps a lead blocker, contributions special teams are a must. Olonilua’s year in the NFL may give him a slight edge there, but Ralston’s history as a linebacker, as well as his physical make-up, make him a terrific fit on coverage units.
One way or another, both players will need a strong camp if the Cowboys are even going to consider keeping a fullback.
Practice Squad Options | Dallas Cowboys Roster
This seems like a likely destination for a third runner and a lead blocker. As I mentioned in the breakdown of the quarterbacks, the current rules are set to allow two players off the practice squad to dress each week.
If Dallas had certain games where they wanted to use a fullback or in a scenario where Elliott or Pollard was banged up, they could bump a guy like Ralston or Dowdle up. There are some positions Dallas may go heavy on in their final roster, like the offensive or defensive line.
Wide receiver and cornerback are also options to keep an extra player, making a third running back and/or fullback expendable. I could see Dallas keeping several backs on the practice squad.
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