Tony Pollard had to wait until Saturday to hear his name called in the 2019 NFL Draft. But despite being a fourth-round pick, the Dallas Cowboys' new running back should be more critical to the team's success in 2019 than any other rookie. That includes the two drafted ahead of him, DT Trysten Hill and OL Connor McGovern.
This statement may sound silly to some of you. Given that Dallas already has a franchise RB in Ezekiel Elliott, are we exaggerating how important Pollard or any other RB could be this season?
Well, let's look at the other rookies for comparison. We can quickly dismiss any of the players drafted after Pollard; I wrote yesterday about how they will all struggle to even make the 2019 roster. Barring injuries or some unexpected scenario, the rookies from Rounds 5-7 will be hoping just to be at the bottom of their positions' depth charts.
How about 3rd-round pick Connor McGovern? Ideally, we won't see McGovern on the field except for a meaningless Week 17 finale. He was a luxury pick whose was taken more with 2020 in view, preparing for the likely departures of La'el Collins and Joe Looney in free agency. Connor should remain behind both Looney and Cam Fleming, the team's primary reserve linemen, this season.
The debate really comes down to Tony Pollard and Trysten Hill. Which of these rookies has the best opportunity to make an impact in 2019, and who will be relied on the most to do so?
While Hill is likely to be active and part of the rotation at defensive tackle this year, he still has to contend with some solid veterans. Tyrone Crawford, Maliek Collins, and Antwaun Woods are all returning from last season. Now there's also Christian Covington, a fifth-year vet who Dallas signed in free agency this year.
Unless Trysten hits the ground running in an exceptional way, he is going to have an uphill climb to earn playing time over these players. Some would argue that Hill's situation isn't that different from Connor McGovern's; he's here for a year of development before replacing guys like Collins and Crawford in 2020.
The point here is that if Hill and McGovern don't play much in 2019, be it by design or by injury, the team shouldn't feel the loss that much. And even if these guys do play a lot, their impact potential as rookies is unlikely to exceed their veteran teammates.
This is where Tony Pollard is different.
Not only may he be relied upon for a crucial role, but Pollard has a chance to bring a unique element to the offense. He can potentially give Dallas something it hasn't had since at least Lance Dunbar, and hopefully to a greater degree than Dunbar was capable of.
Unlike any of his fellow Dallas rookies, Pollard is already projected to be the immediate backup at his position. Not only that, but he will likely walk in as the new kick returner and could compete for the job on punts as well.
Ideally, Tony's role in Dallas will extend even beyond those duties.
If Kellen Moore's offense takes advantage if versatile players the way we hope, then a guy like Pollard could become a consistent contributor. We could see him line him up at RB and then move out to WR, or get plenty of looks on screen passes.
There may even be pure run plays, like tosses or sweeps, where Tony Pollard's speed makes him the best RB for the play over Ezekiel Elliott.
While we certainly don't expect Tony to ever eclipse Zeke, like Alvin Kamara did over Mark Ingram in New Orleans, the potential is there for the rookie to get substantial playing time. None of his fellow rookies have it so easy.
If the Cowboys do decide they can rely on Pollard, it could lead them to cut the incumbent return specialist and gadget player in Tavon Austin. That would only increase Pollard's criticality to the team's success.
So, fourth round be damned, Tony Pollard projects to have the most responsibility of any of Dallas' rookies in 2019. Even if guys like Trysten Hill and Connor McGovern surpass him in future years, Pollard's immediate opportunities at running back, receiver, and on special teams make him the most important rookie this season.