The running back position for the Dallas Cowboys has been one of the better position groups for the team for much of the last five years. Even as the offensive line has taken a hit in talent from the outstanding 2016 group, the Dallas Cowboys were still quite effective running the football.
Heading into his sixth year in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott is entering something of a prove-it season. Even though his roster spot is solidified, many think he's experienced a drop-off in play in production. While there might be some truth to it, there's also context that's required as well.
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line in 2020 was nothing short of a disaster. After Travis Frederick retired, they were forced to break in a rookie fifth-round pick at center. Tyron Smith played just two games, and La'el Collins missed the entire season. The Cowboys were also missing their starting quarterback for much of the season. The Dallas Cowboys struggled to keep teams honest after Dak Prescott was lost to his ankle injury in week five.
Then there's the matter of COVID-19. It's easy to forget because Elliott didn't miss any time. Elliott had COVID-19 during the Summer, and it certainly affected his ability to train and prepare for the 2020 season. While he recovered, it's unknown what lingering effects the virus had on Elliott's body.
Ezekiel Elliott looks rejuvenated in offseason workouts heading into 2021. With a healthier outlook along the offensive line and a full offseason to prepare. As they get everyone ready for the 2021 NFL season, Pro Football Focus has ranked each position in the league and has turned to ranking the position groups. In their positional rankings, Ezekiel Elliott came in at 11th in the NFL.
As a unit, the Dallas Cowboys running back position ranked fifth per Pro Football Focus:
“Ezekiel Elliott‘s recent step-back has coincided with the deterioration along the Cowboys' offensive line. The Ohio State product's 65.3 PFF grade in 2020 was the lowest of his career, but it is worth noting that it came behind an offensive line dealing with injuries to its three best players. That should improve in 2021 for a running back with one of the lowest “stuff rates” — the percentage of runs for a loss or no gain — since entering the league in 2016 (7.1%).”
There's also reason to be excited about his backup, Tony Pollard. Pollard has been one of the more efficient runners in the league on a per-carry basis, averaging over four yards after contact per rushing attempt and forcing 46 missed tackles on fewer than 200 carries in his NFL career. He just hasn't seen many opportunities behind Elliott.”
Ben Linsey, Pro Football Focus
Ezekiel Elliott's ability to turn a play that looks like it's headed for a two to three-yard loss into a positive gain is one of the more remarkable traits he possesses. As mentioned by Linsey, he doesn't get “stuffed” often. Even in a down year for the Cowboys, Elliott was 11th in yards after contact per attempt among players with at least 190 carries. Zeke was also fifth in the NFL in first down rushes at 62.
Elliott's five carries for 15 or more yards were the fewest since the 2017 season when he sat out six games due to a suspension. Of the 19 players with at least 190 carries in 2020, Elliott was tied for last with Todd Gurley per Pro Football Focus. For reference, Pollard also had five carries of more than 15 yards on 143 fewer carries last season. Look for that number to bounce back for Elliott into double-digits where it's been in 3 of his five seasons in the NFL.
Tony Pollard comes into 2021 after his best year in the league and should get more of an opportunity in the offense. Of course, Elliott will remain the lead back, but there were times last year where they tried to get Pollard more involved.
His balance, elusiveness, and speed are great compliments to Ezekiel Elliott's vision, power, and strength. Pollard showed in the game against the San Francisco 49ers that he has a game-breaking ability that the Cowboys should get on the field more often. He has the speed and elusiveness to score from anywhere on the field; he needs more touches.
The Cowboys have evolved into more of a passing team under Kellen Moore. They'll still run it a bunch, but Dak Prescott and the passing game will take the lead in many games. That shouldn't minimize the importance and the impact of the running game on the Cowboys' success. The better the running game is, the better it can sell play-action. Teams will worry about the players on the outside, but if they have to worry about the running backs, too, it becomes a “pick your poison” proposition, and that's never a good spot for a defense to be in.
Like many aspects of the Dallas Cowboys' offense, the running back room is primed for a bounceback season in 2021. Ezekiel Elliott will return to the top of the rushing yard leaderboard and will continue to play a vital role in the Cowboys' offense as they attempt to return to the playoffs in 2021.