Tony Pollard is hobbled and potentially heading to free agency.
Ezekiel Elliott has slowed considerably and has a big contract to boot.
All of a sudden, the Dallas Cowboys’ running backs room is rife with uncertainty.
Might the Cowboys consider using a first-round pick on a running back seven years after they did so with Elliott in 2016? Perhaps they would, considering they hold the 26th overall pick and not selection No. 4 as they did when they took Zeke.
“I think it depends on what part of the first round,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said this week, via ESPN’s Todd Archer. “If you’re up there in the top 10, it’s hard to take them there. You definitely, if you’re taking a player in the top half, you’re hoping you got a player that’s going to be here 10 years. And it’s tough for running backs to last 10 years. There’s not many Emmitt Smiths or guys that play that long.”
Smith turned into one of the greatest Cowboys of them all and the NFL’s all-time leading rusher. He wasn’t selected until the latter half of the 1990 NFL Draft at No. 17 overall, however.
As for Elliott, he now finds doubt about his future in Dallas at a high. He rushed for a career-low 876 yards in 2022, and his 3.8 yards per carry and 58.4 yards per game were also career worsts. Heading into his age-28 season with Dallas, Elliott is due a base salary of $10.9 million with a $16.7 million cap hit. It would seem to be a given that the three-time Pro Bowler is due for a restructured contract or a release.
No decision has been made just yet, though.
“We haven’t finalized any decisions yet in terms of what that room’s going to look like, but Zeke’s a tremendous competitor, just a great teammate, a great competitor,” Jones said. “Obviously he’s making a lot of money. He knows that. Obviously, Tony Pollard’s up for free agency, so that’s a challenge. We’ll work through that.”
Having spent the fourth-overall pick on Elliott in 2016 and then spent a six-year, $90 million extension on him in 2019, Jones said the Cowboys have no regrets — even though he was clear that taking a back in the top 10 now isn’t viable.
“Zeke obviously did an amazing job for us. He came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games,” Jones said of Elliott, who produced a pair of rushing titles in his initial three seasons. “I don’t second-guess that one, but it is hard for these guys to play 10 years at a real high level.”
Adding to the Cowboys’ backfield conundrum is that Pollard is headed for free agency after breaking his leg in the team’s season-ending NFC Championship Game loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
NFL Network’s Jane Slater previously reported that she was “confident” Pollard would be a Cowboy in 2023. Dallas could make that happen in a variety of ways, including via the franchise tag. The team used the tag on tight end Dalton Schultz last year and could utilize it again in 2023.
Jones didn’t unveil any specifics, but said it was likely the team would put the tag in play again.
“More than likely, we’ll use our tag,” he said. “Not necessarily on Tony but we’ll use our tag.”
As for the No. 26 spot, if Texas product Bijan Robinson — Daniel Jeremiah’s No. 4 prospect — is still available, would the Cowboys be able to pass up the three-down back? Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs could also be a tantalizing option.
“Once you’re into 26, normally, I think we say we’ve got 18-20 [players graded as] first-rounders on the board,” said Jones, whose Cowboys haven’t drafted a back since Pollard in the 2019 fourth round. “So usually when you’re picking 26, you’re pretty lucky if there’s still a first-rounder left on your board. Usually that’s been picked over and you’re taking those players there.
“I think certainly if the right guy were there and you loved him and you needed him, then you’d take him.”