The Dallas Cowboys want to emulate their 2014 season.
To do so, they will need to boast a dominant ground game.
Make no mistake, this team wants to run the ball thirty times a game.
If their backfield was short on depth, Ezekiel Elliott may have been looking at the ninety plus percent carry hold that Demarco Murray had on the running game in 2014. But this is a new-look backfield in 2016.
The fact that the team signed free agent running back Alfred Morris and added Darius Jackson in the sixth round of the draft got me to thinking.
What exactly will be the plan for this backfield?
Here is what I would like to see happen.
The Dallas Cowboys selected Elliott fourth overall in the draft to have an immediate impact.
Tony Romo is 36 and injury prone. He is still the key to this team’s success, and everything must be done to increase his chances to stay on the field. The window for winning in the Romo era is closing.
With that in mind, the team needs to validate taking Elliott as high as they did in the draft. He needs to see most first and second down work, as well as some third down action if he proves to continue the strong pass protection skills he displayed in college.
Despite a recent hamstring tweak, I fully expect Elliott to be the lead feature back this year, and hope he touches the ball 20 times a game. That total may seem high, considering rookie running backs typically do not exceed 300 touches in a season anymore, but he is in a unique situation.
In taking a look at rookie running back success in the past decade, Elliott warrants an even higher volume than that of others if the team truly wants to maximize the situation. He has at his disposal what many others have not, which is a dominant offensive line, great surrounding talent on offense, and a talented quarterback — when healthy.
When people think about the Dallas offense, names like Lance Dunbar typically don’t come up. But he adds another element to this offense that needs to be valued this season. If you need some validation, roll tape on him and Romo singlehandedly stealing a win from the New York Giants on opening weekend last year. When healthy, Dunbar was also a nice third down security blanket for Romo at times.
Dunbar’s job is clearly unsafe, as he sits on the PUP list as a crowded backfield takes to camp. However, I hope to see Dunbar get 5-8 targets a game, hauling in those third down conversions, half back screens, and the occasional sweep play they used effectively in 2014.
Darren McFadden quietly finished fourth in the NFL in rushing yards last season, and managed to post a respectable per carry average. He exceeded many expectations that others had about his production and ability to last a full season. Despite accomplishing both, the team still brought in three new running backs, which speaks volumes about their confidence in him moving forward.
McFadden displays consistency, but lacks any explosive burst that both Elliott and Dunbar possess. Breaking his elbow in the offseason is not helping his cause either. The team will almost certainly not be holding five backs this year, so McFadden would get my vote for a cut.
Alfred Morris was scooped up for cheap in the offseason, and he is an underrated back that can play a small role in the Dallas offense moving forward. He does not have the wow factor of Elliott, but he is a proven veteran that can act as a nice change of pace back, and fill in for Elliott if that hamstring flairs up.
I would like to see Morris’ large frame used in short yardage situations and on the goal line from time to time.
I’ll admit, I was a little puzzled when the Cowboys drafted Darius Jackson, but now he is turning some heads.
Jackson is one of the bright spots in camp currently as a few other backs are out with injuries. If the team decides to hold four running backs on the current roster, Jackson has flashed some potential to etch out a small role in the backfield.