For three seasons now, Ezekiel Elliott has been the best runner in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys will continue to lean on him in 2019, but the rest of the running back depth chart could use some work this offseason.
We can't just skip Elliott and go to these other issues, though. He's entering the final year of his rookie contract, putting some big decisions in front of the Cowboys as far as a long-term extension or whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option.
The latter decision must be made soon. The deadline for fifth-year options on the class of 2016 is May 3rd of this year. We now know that the amount for Zeke would be about $9 million for 2020. He would then become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, barring any other contract extension.
Dallas will almost certainly exercise that option. It's basically a discounted franchise tag for them, which is one of the team-friendly aspects of using a first-round draft pick. It also secures Zeke's rights for two more years and gives the team some leverage in any long-term negotiations.
What's more, with Elliott's 2019 cap hit already at $7.94 million, that fifth-year amount won't be any big blow to the 2020 salary cap.
Whatever happens here, we know for sure that Ezekiel Elliott will once again be the featured player in the Cowboys' offense this season. Now let's get to the moving parts.
After over three seasons with Dallas, Rod Smith is about to become an unrestricted free agent. He's been a solid backup for Zeke and a standout special teams player. Still just 27, Smith should be a useful addition to someone's roster.
Perhaps that roster should be the Cowboys. Smith had added value for Dallas given his system experience, plus he has the versatility to play some fullback.
Last season's fullback, Olawale, played on less than 11% of the team's total offensive snaps. Is that usage rate really worth keeping a dedicated FB on the roster?
In past years, we've seen Dallas utilize one of its tight ends as a backfield blocker. They could do the same with one of their backup RBs, giving them more total value out of a single roster spot.
If the Cowboys like Rod's blocking ability enough then perhaps he can be that guy. However, it is worth nothing that he was beaten out by Kevin Smith for the FB role back in 2016. Perhaps blocking was the issue then.
The point here is that if Rod Smith or some other free agent can provide RB depth while also covering those relatively few snaps at FB, that would be a great use of resources for Dallas going forward.
One guy hoping to finally stick around is Darius Jackson, who's on his third stint with the Cowboys after being a sixth-round pick in 2016. Other teams have claimed him off waivers and signed him off the practice squad over the last three years, but Dallas keep bringing him back.
Darius has the speed to do some damage with clear running lanes. Hopefully, the Cowboys getting Travis Frederick pack and seeing some second-year growth from Connor Williams will provide just that. It could increase Jackson's value to them as a reserve.
One issue for guys like Rod or Darius will be a loaded free agent market for running backs, giving Dallas plenty of options with more experience and/or upside.
As hard as it is to take a talent like Zeke off the field, it may be time for the Cowboys to start considering spreading out his workload a little. If they truly plan on a long-term relationship with Elliott then they risk running his wheels off at his current number of carries.
Making an investment in a talented number-two back, either through free agency or the draft, would make sense if Dallas intends to keep Zeke beyond 2021.
Not only will it help save some wear and tear on Elliott, but there comes a point that you have to be worried about a serious injury. Even the most durable players can have that one bad hit, and nobody wants to see this offense trying to function without a solid running game.
So even though Ezekiel Elliott commands the heavy focus, and looks to be here at least the next two seasons, the Cowboys still clearly have some work to do at running back. They need to figure out the backup spot this offseason, as well as the fullback role, and make sure they're covered for all situations.
They've put far too much emphasis on the running game to ever take it lightly.