The strength of the Dallas Cowboys, above all else for the foreseeable future, is their offensive line. A punishing unit that dominates their match ups across the board each week, the Cowboys play through their highly paid line - particularly when it comes to running the football.
Making a splash with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 Draft, the Cowboys put together the league's best running game this season by grabbing Ezekiel Elliott. A well-rested Elliott will now look to carry this team through the playoffs, and he'll have a solid stable of backups behind him.
Let's preview the embarrassment of riches that the Cowboys have at running back going into the playoffs.
Ezekiel Elliott is better at carrying the football than you are at your job. You know it is true. The remarkable 21-year old rookie led the NFL in rushing this season despite not even being in uniform this past weekend against Philadelphia!
As expected, he has fit perfectly in Scott Linehan's running scheme, regularly bursting through gaping holes in the front - only to do most of his damage on the second level with an array of open-field moves.
Looking ahead to the playoffs, Elliott has faced all but two teams that the Cowboys may face. While the New York Giants were able to slow down Zeke in their two wins against the Cowboys this season, Elliott ran wild on the Lions and Packers.
In Green Bay, Elliott rushed for 157 yards on 28 carries - both close to season high outputs. In week 16 on Monday Night Football against the Lions, Ezekiel Elliott exploded for a 55-yard touchdown on his way to 80 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns.
Just a year ago, Zeke Elliott was playing in the College Football Playoffs, and the 25 days off between Ohio State's conference championship win (where he rushed for 220 yards) and their semifinal game against the vaunted Alabama defense saw Elliott dominate Nick Saban's team in epic fashion - carrying the Buckeyes with 230 yards on the ground and two touchdowns.
Elliott even topped both of these performances in the National Championship against Oregon, cementing his status as a once-in-a-lifetime running back prospect with 246 more rushing yards - and a casual four touchdowns.
Now, Elliott will have 19 days since the last time he took just 12 carries to appear in the NFC Divisional Playoffs - looking to make even more history with his rookie quarterback Dak Prescott.
The best rushing defense he could possibly face would be the Giants, who you know the entire Cowboys' roster is fired up to potentially see again, and they'll have to first get through the Packers on the road.
It is time for Ezekiel Elliott to eat his way to Houston.
Has any back been through a stranger 2016 season than Darren McFadden? A forgotten man as soon as Elliott was drafted, McFadden then missed training camp along with the first 15 weeks of the regular season with his elbow injury.
Appearing in the final three games for the Cowboys, McFadden has been a welcome veteran option behind Elliott, not missing a beat from 2015 where he totaled 1,089 yards as the Cowboys' best offensive option.
It's no secret that Dallas is prepared to run Ezekiel Elliott into the ground throughout the playoffs - as they should - but McFadden will play a key role in being able to rest Elliott for short periods of time while still forcing defenses to respect him out of the backfield much more than a Lance Dunbar or Alfred Morris.
The entire premise of the Cowboys' running game is to keep the offense ahead of schedule on short passing downs, and McFadden will certainly help them do just that as he has shown throughout his time in Dallas.
Alfred Morris was supposed to be another reason that Darren McFadden was going to have a tough time finding a role in 2016's crowded backfield, but instead McFadden has recently proved to be the better option as Morris has become a healthy scratch two of the past three weeks.
While he may not have a huge role in the playoffs, Morris is still capable of wearing down defenses as a physical back. If he is called upon, after Elliott and McFadden, expect the professional in Morris - who has never played past the Wild Card Round in two postseason appearances - to execute in his role.
While it hasn't shown, Morris is actually the better scheme fit to play with the Cowboys' offensive line compared to McFadden, so one well-blocked zone play with The Butler carrying the ball could turn a postseason game for the Cowboys.
The X-Factor: Lance Dunbar
Don't roll your eyes at me. Back on a one-year deal for this season, Lance Dunbar has been a major disappointment. After seeing 19 snaps in that ugly loss to the Giants on the road, Dunbar was only on the field for nine snaps in the following two weeks.
Again, the world already knows that the Cowboys are great at running the football - but Lance Dunbar is not. More of a receiving threat at the running back position, Scott Linehan has realized that he can get the same production out of Elliott and McFadden, while keeping much more of a rushing threat on the field.
At the same time, Linehan has dialed up some creative calls to utilize all of his skill players this season, and it is obviously not far-fetched to see Dunbar hitting a few big plays throughout the playoffs - making him my x-factor at this position.
Playoff Primer is an ongoing series here at Inside The Star, preparing Cowboys Nation for the 2016 playoffs with a breakdown of every position on this team. To catch up with previous editions of this series, click here!
Will Dallas Cowboys Address Backup RB in Free Agency or 2019 Draft?
The Dallas Cowboys' backup running back spot may not seem like a high priority compared to other 2019 offseason issues. But all it takes is one bad play for Ezekiel Elliott to be lost, and the Dallas offense leans too heavily on the RB position to take his backup plan lightly. Will the team be looking to improve the talent behind Zeke through free agency or the draft?
Right now, the only running backs signed to the Cowboys' roster are Elliott, Darius Jackson, and Jordan Chunn. The backup for the last few seasons, Rod Smith, is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Jackson and Chunn have a combined six carries for 16 yards in their careers, and all of those came from Darius in the Cowboys' meaningless 2018 regular-season finale. Chunn spent all of his rookie season on the practice squad.
A sixth-round pick for Dallas in 2016, Darius Jackson is on his third stint with the Cowboys after stops in Cleveland and Green Bay in between. He has flashed some electric running ability at times but clearly hasn't been able to stick with a team. Could 2019 be his chance?
Jordan Chunn was an undrafted free agent out of Troy last year. He's a big, powerful runner with some deceptive athletic moves as well.
What stands out most with both of these guys isn't positive, though, and that's their mutual inexperience and draft capital. Would the Cowboys really leave their RB depth chart so thin when they're trying to make a championship run?
Dallas could be hoping to eventually re-sign Rod Smith at a bargain price. He's a solid backup and special teams leader, and the longer he sits unsigned in free agency then the lower his price should be.
But is it time for the Cowboys to invest more in their other running backs? Not only is 2019 a critical year, but upcoming contract negotiations with Elliott could make it a wise move.
This upcoming season is the last one of Zeke's standard rookie contract. Dallas will have to decide if they want to sign him long-term or let him play 2020 on his fifth-year option as a former first-round draft pick, which would pay him about $9 million.
Signing or drafting a player of consequence now, and having them under contract over the next few seasons, would give the Cowboys some added leverage in contract negotiations with Elliott.
What's more, who's to say that Zeke's impressive durability will just continue? He's already had a lot of touches in three years, even with the six suspension games. Maybe it's time to find someone who you don't mind giving some of the workload to?
Some of the top free agents available likely won't want the reduced role, and money, that playing behind Elliott will mean. That would take guys like Jay Ajayi and C.J. Anderson off the list.
What about older veteran who can still ball, like Marshawn Lynch, Darren Sproles, or Doug Martin? You might not want them as a featured player anymore but they could still be effective on limited touches. Joining a potential contender like the Cowboys in a supporting role could be exactly what these guys are looking for.
Other free agent options would be players who are used to backup roles, such as Isaiah Crowell, T.J. Yeldon, or Spencer Ware. They would be probable upgrades from Rod Smith but for minimal money if they stay unsigned much longer.
The draft is another way to add some RB talent, and it could be the smartest one. A drafted player, even as high as Dallas' second-round pick, would have a four-year rookie deal at a minimal salary.
One player that could make a lot of sense for the Cowboys is Justice Hill out of Oklahoma State. He brings a change of pace from Elliott as a smaller, quicker back and could be available for them during Day 2 of the draft.
Hill was featured as a potential Cowboys target by our Brian Martin a few weeks ago.
You might say that having Elliott makes any sort of serious draft pick at running back a wasted pick. But with Zeke turning 26 after the 2020 season, the Cowboys might be willing to let someone else give him a huge deal and move on to a much cheaper option.
And again, who says that Elliott makes it through another 16-game season and playoffs without a major injury? It can happen to the best of them.
Clearly, this could go any number of ways. Dallas might bring back Rod Smith or some comparable player for a cheap, easy answer at backup running back. Maybe they invest in a more proven free agent, or perhaps they draft someone early enough to matter.
However it goes, let's just say that I highly doubt Darius Jackson will be RB2 come September.
Dallas Cowboys Head Toward NFL Draft with No Glaring Needs
When the offseason began after the Dallas Cowboys fell to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs, it was clear that they were a team on the rise, but had several areas they needed to address as free agency and the draft approached.
The team had holes or depth issues at safety, defensive tackle, swing tackle, wide receiver, defensive end, and tight end. Through the first two weeks of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys have taken care of each of those areas.
With the signings of George Iloka, Christian Covington, Cameron Fleming, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Kerry Hyder, and Jason Witten, The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up to approach the draft with “clear eyes and a full heart.”
As they head into April with the NFL Draft looming, the Cowboys won’t be held back by positional need and can allow their draft board to do the work for them and just add good players. It’s an excellent position to be in as they don’t have to reach for a player at a position of need they may not like as much because they have a veteran presence filling that need.
Backup running back appears to be the only position where the Cowboys could use some depth, but that player for this team is more of a special teams player who gets limited snaps on offense because of the greatness of Ezekiel Elliott. It’s generally a position where there is a lot of talent deep in the draft and undrafted free agent pool, which allows the Cowboys to be patient filling that need behind the NFL’s leading rusher.
Mother than that, if the Dallas Cowboys has to go play a football game and win today, they’d be in great shape to do so.
On the flip side, however, the Cowboys can still add players at defensive tackle, wide receiver, tight end, safety, and defensive end because they aren’t restricted by big contracts to those veteran players. Each of them came to the Cowboys on one-year deals. The veterans that they signed would prohibit them from drafting at that same position, and that’s the point.
The Cowboys have created a formula that works really well for them. Sometimes it get frustrating watching the team not make any big splashes in free agency, especially that first week when other teams are bringing in big-name players to add to their rosters. That formula has led them to a 48-32 record over the last five seasons with three NFC East titles, and two playoff wins, and three divisional round appearances.
And the playoff runs could have been deeper with a bit of luck and correct officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys have set themselves up really well as they now set their sights on the NFL Draft at the end of April. Though they won’t have a first round pick to add to their talent pool, the Cowboys have shown that they can find talent in the second round and beyond. This year will be no different.
Now it’s time to sit back and trust the process.
Cowboys Have Had Quiet, Yet Successful, Free Agency
Yet another free agency without a big splash by the Dallas Cowboys. What a surprise. Despite entertaining Earl Thomas rumors for a long, long time, the Cowboys' front office has stuck with its philosophy of not overpaying free agents and building the team mainly through the NFL Draft. However, they've actually had some pretty good signings over the last few days that will really benefit the Cowboys when the season comes around.
They've done so with inexpensive free agents who will contribute at a high level on their respective positions. Sure, top free agent signings are fun. But many times, they end up backfiring to teams for spending so much money in one single player. At the end of the day, the Cowboys' way has gotten the team three NFC East Championships since 2014. Many factors come into play, but their team building philosophy can't be as bad as many claim it to be.
The most recent acquisition came in form of former Cincinnati Bengal and Minnesota Viking Safety George Iloka. The Cowboys had a desperate need at the defensive backfield and finally they've done something about it. On a heavy safety market, the Cowboys sat tight while watching the top free agents get top contracts around the league, including Landon Collins' record breaking deal with the Washington Redskins.
Now, they've gotten a guy who can play both safety positions. I'll be surprised if he doesn't take Jeff Heath's job. He's played as a free safety most of his career but being a good tackler, he should do a good job in the box. Iloka will also shine on special teams in Dallas.
So far, my favorite signing may be that of former Green Bay Packer, Randall Cobb. The Cowboys had an important need at the wide receiver position despite counting with Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup leading the room. Cole Beasley is a tough guy to replace and although Cobb may not be a better slot receiver than him, he certainly has the experience and the skill set to be a starting slot WR. What's more, he'll only cost the Cowboys five million while Beasley got a four year deal with which he'll earn $17M over the first two years.
Cole Beasley will be missed, but the good thing is the front office did a pretty good job at filling the concerning hole on offense. Cooper, Gallup and Cobb are definitely not a bad starting trio to have.
Other under the radar moves will also help the Cowboys. Kerry Hyder may not be a well-known in the NFL but he'll surely contribute to this defensive line as a rotational player. Hyder had eight sacks in 2016 with the Detroit Lions before suffering an Achilles injury in 2017 and dealing with a scheme change last season. Hyder will surely be happy about being back to a 4-3 defense in Dallas.
Christian Covington was another overlooked signing. Covington will help on the interior of the defensive line and although he'll likely not be a starter, he'll be an important piece in the rotation for a very reasonable contract ( also a one-year deal).
For a football team that's constantly criticized for not being active in free agency, the Cowboys have done something at pretty much every position where they need help. Safety, defensive end, defensive tackle, wide receiver and tight end have all been addressed this offseason prior to the NFL Draft. This will give them great flexibility in April and could lead to a pretty good "best player available" strategy.
Now granted, there are still concerns regarding the young "to be extended" group of players. DeMarcus Lawrence hasn't reached an agreement with the Cowboys and will continue to postpone surgery until he does. If the front office doesn't strike a contract with the star pass rusher, it won't be possible to consider this offseason a good one no matter what happens. Dallas can't let him leave.
In the meantime though, they've had a pretty quiet yet successful March. And they're not done yet. Robert Quinn could end up wearing the Star if a trade with the Miami Dolphins does end up taking place. We'll see if the Cowboys continue to build on an already pretty good free agency.
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