Last week’s Hall of Fame game gave Cowboys fans some good looks at running backs Alfred Morris and Rod Smith, assumed to be competing for the third spot on the RB depth chat. Also, new comments from Jerry Jones have made Ezekiel Elliott’s future tougher to predict. Throw in a brief but uninspiring performance from Darren McFadden and we have arguably more confusion now at RB than we did a week ago.
Let’s start at the top; Ezekiel Elliott’s possible suspension has been hanging over the Cowboys all summer. During the Hall of Fame festivities, Jerry Jones commented on Zeke’s situation in a concerning way.
“There are a couple of issues that might or might not fall — and that’s going to be up to the league to the decide — under the behavioral guidelines.”
It’s not the most direct comment ever, which Jerry’s rarely are, but it does speak to the likelihood that the league is considering more with Elliott than just the domestic violence allegation. Whether it’s the St. Patrick’s Day parade shirt-lifting, the trip to the marijuana shop in Seattle, a speeding ticket for 100 mph, or his proximity to whatever happened at that nightclub, Zeke may be headed for a wrist-slapping, preventative disciplinary measure from Roger Goodell.
However, not long after those comments, Jerry went on to say that he did not expect any kind of suspension for Elliott. It’s hard to know if that’s supportive or even wishful thinking, or just an objective appraisal from the Cowboys owner. Either way, many now think a one or two-game suspension is very possible if Zeke’s entire body of work is being considered.
With three carries for a total loss of six yards, Darren McFadden’s preseason started with a brief whimper. As we’ll get to in a minute, Alfred Morris and Rod Smith had far better success with their carries that night. However, before you go handing McFadden’s job to one of them, there are two key points to keep in mind.
McFadden’s three carries came at the start of the game when the Cowboys offense looked the most befuddled. The offensive line created nothing for him to use. Also, let’s be real; three carries is hardly a solid sample size. One long run can change the way your entire night is perceived, much like how Morris benefited from his 25-yarder. Without it, he had six carries for 17 yards.
It’s important to remember that McFadden’s value isn’t just in carrying the ball. He’s an exceptional backfield blocker and receiver, making him an ideal third-down option. With Ezekiel Elliott as the workhorse, McFadden can go in and be more useful in various spots; more of a Swiss Army knife player than Morris. He can even return a kickoff in a pinch.
Still, there’s no denying that Alfred Morris and Rod Smith were the standout running backs in the game. Morris 25-yard run showed both athleticism and power, and on several other carries he did a nice job of reading blocks quickly before hitting the right lane. Both players had to make something out of nothing a few times.
With his 18 carries, Rod Smith got the biggest workload and shined consistently. His final stat line of 64 yards on 18 carries is not a great average, but Smith was clearly doing the best with what second and third-string offensive linemen could give him. He showed good improvisational ability, agility, and also power throughout the night. He even had three catches for 25 yards.
There were already reports that Rod Smith was threatening Morris’ roster spot coming out of training camp and this game showed you why. Along with effective running, Rod is a solid special teams player and even has the experience from playing a little fullback last year. He is a more justifiable number-three RB than a guy who doesn’t give you all of the extra things. Plus, cutting Morris saves you $1.6 million off the salary cap
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Obviously, Ezekiel Elliott is the team’s workhorse back for whatever number of games he is allowed to play. At this point, there’s little reason to think that Darren McFadden will fall out of the number-two spot, let alone off the roster completely. A suspension will likely allow the Cowboys to delay their decision between Alfred Morris and Rod Smith; it is doubtful that will keep four running backs given Zeke’s projected workload.
With four games and a lot of practices between now and final cuts, there is plenty of time for assumptions and projections to change. As last week proved, it doesn’t take much for us to start rethinking things. The picture may get even murkier before it finally clears up.