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2021 Offseason: Did Cowboys Get Better or Worse at Running Back?

Our “Better or Worse” series for 2021 continues now with the running backs and fullbacks. With minimal personnel changes from last year, Dallas is counting on improved offensive line play and the development of existing talent to make this group more effective.

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard return as one of the better RB duos in football. 2020 was certainly a down year for both but understandable given the offensive line injuries and Dak Prescott’s absence. It’s not hard to have faith in Zeke and Pollard to bounce back this season.

That said, those mitigating factors didn’t cause Elliott to have five fumbles in his first six games. There’s no denying that Zeke’s lack of ball security early in 2020 were key contributors to Dallas’ 2-4 record in those early weeks, undermining the potentially record-breaking work that Prescott was doing in the passing game.

Pollard saw an uptick in usage in last year, getting 15 more carries and 13 more catches than his rookie season. With reports already from offseason practices that Tony is getting looks at receiver, perhaps those passing game numbers could increase even more.

Even if not, Pollard remains solidified as RB2 behind Elliott and a guy that Dallas will be looking for creative ways to get the ball. Just halfway into his rookie contract, Tony is currently one of the better values on the entire roster.

2021 Offseason Movement at RB/FB

  • Departures
    • Jamize Olawale (FB)
      • Olawale really wasn’t with the team in 2020 after opting out under the COVID-19 policy.
  • Arrivals
    • JaQuan Hardy
    • Brenden Knox
    • Nick Ralston (FB)

Even the third RB position may be already locked up for 2021. Rico Dowdle, an undrafted free agent last year, showed his value on special teams both as a returner and in coverage. While Dallas has added some new UDFAs in Hardy and Knox, they will have to put in some work to knock Dowdle off the roster.

The more intriguing situation is actually with the fullbacks. With Olawale being cut this offseason, Dallas has prospects Sewo Olonilua and UDFA Nick Ralston currently vying for the position.

I wrote a week ago on Ralston’s solid chance at making the Cowboys roster over any other undrafted rookies. There’s not veteran to worry about; Olonilua was a UDFA himself in 2020 and is converting to FB after playing RB at TCU.

Whether or not Dallas keeps a fullback at all in 2021 is the biggest threat to Ralston or Olonilua making the team.

Had he played last year, Jamize Olawale had some potential to do interesting things with Mike McCarthy’s influence. McCarthy has historically gotten more use out of the FB position than most offensive minds in the modern NFL.

Whether it’s through further growth from Olonilua or Ralston bringing an upgrade as a true fullback, either will be better than the virtual nothing that Dallas got from the position in 2020.

Overall, it’s hard to say this RB/FB group will really be any different than a year ago. They may wind up looking much better thanks to improvements around them, but the talent level is roughly the same.

That said, a third-year pop from Tony Pollard is definitely on the table. So is further development from Dowdle and perhaps the reemergence of a contributing fullback.

At the very least, you can’t say the group is any worse off than a year ago.

Final Verdict: BETTER (slightly)

What do you think?

Jess Haynie

Written by Jess Haynie

Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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  1. I certainly don’t think they’re any worse and, if EE can clean up his ball security issues, they’re better just because of how that did have a negative effect on several games. I’m an old school guy that still values the fullback and safety positions. I really wish those positions were valued by the Cowboys. I long for the days of a Moose opening holes for the league’s all time leading rushing or a Woodson shutting down plays and becoming the highest tackler in team history. Says a little about those positions and how they probably contributed to three titles. The game has changed a little but not that much. You still have to be able to control the clock on offense and tackle on defense. Good article, Jess.

  2. Reports are saying that Zeke and Pollard are doing a 60/40 share for the upcoming season. I just think we overpaid for him big time. Zeke is a good player but I dont think any RB is worth as much as he got. The money could’ve been used better. For the money we gave Zeke we could’ve resigned Byron Jones and not even worried about our CB room

  3. Jerry went and did the very thing that you don’t do as a GM, overpay a RB and pay him too early on in his contract, and you see the results now, he’s not elite anymore imo, but we paying him like he is,

    couple his contract with the overpaying of D-Law ( though it did make sense at the time) and J Smith, and paying Dak what he wanted and we’re hurting cap wise

  4. You really can’t hardly give a RB a 2nd contract anymore , there’s some outliers like Henry i think rn , but if I’m a Titans fan , I’m kinda sweating every year wondering if he’ll continue to stay healthy or stay at the same level he’s at

    Zeke was great for like 2 to 3 years , looked transcendent after his first year , but oh how times have changed

  5. Not to beat a dead horse, but a RBs prime years are the first 4-5. Why turn around and reupp them with a huge contract as they enter the least productive stage of their career. Why Jerry?

    Zeke may be a bit more productive next season. But i doubt it will be because he regained his mojo. It will because the OL and Dak are healthy. We’ll see early on with our own eyes whether Zeke has anything left in the tank. If he is slow to hit the hole and keeps getting caught from behind at the line of scrimmage by slow DTs, the hope is that Jerry will allow his head coach to play Pollard more. I’m not holding my breath on that one though. Would make Jerry look bad to bench his overpaid pet.

  6. Yet we broke the bank paying a slow RB who would become the all time leading rusher ! The whine about JJ crowd never misses a chance to do just that . Lets ignore the FACT that the offensive line was in shambles and playing backup QB’s nobody was afraid of ! Everybody’s arm chair GM’s and coach’s these days !!

  7. Hopefully ur not comparing Zeke with the great E. Smith who helped us win multiple SBs. Zeke had a few good years and is already in decline. The naked eye tells you all u need to know about Zeke.

  8. One thing is for sure EE or his agent one knew that he was slipping and held out for the big money before anyone realized that he was dropping in talent! From a Business stand point he played ole Jerry like a Banjo! I like EE but he is over payed for what he can bring to the table! But I hope he will prove me wrong.

  9. At the time of the extension we failed to go with the whole committee backfield approach that was starting to sweep the NFL. Its not on 1 guy anymore its normally like 2-3 guys. I think that you need a power runner, a speed runner and someone who can be a scat back/receiving back. Id like it if Dallas could extend Pollard(at a modest price of course) and find the other 2 backs to complement him. He can either be our scat/receiving back or our speed back

  10. We didn’t get better.
    First three years, EE was GREAT. Unfortunately, now going in the wrong direction.
    EE’s Yards/game

    2016, 108
    2017, 98
    2018, 95
    2019, 85
    2020, 65

    Easy to see the decline, just watch his burst and long speed. Can he just do a 360? Hope so, but to be honest, it’s doubtful. Bottom line, with EE in decline, how can we be better at RB position this coming year?

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