With Ezekiel Elliott scheduled to make his debut, will the Dallas Cowboys even have room for five running backs on their final 53-man roster?
The preseason is winding down. Can you smell it in the air? Meaningful football is close; really close. Week Three of preseason is here for the Dallas Cowboys. This is the big “dress rehearsal” for NFL teams to show off what they have.
Players have one more chance to prove they have what it takes to make the team, or make a trip home. With the exception of wide receiver Dez Bryant and defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford, who both suffered concussions earlier this week, the Cowboys should have their full compliment of players ready to go. Rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott is one of them.
With Elliott set to make his preseason debut, the Cowboys will have plenty of active running backs on the roster for the game in Seattle on Thursday. This, honestly is a good thing for now. We have already seen veteran running back Alfred Morris look healthy and make some good runs this preseason. I expect to see him carry the ball in the third quarter against Seattle.
That being said, I expect Elliott to take the bulk of the snaps in the first half. Dallas is going to test out his ankle in live game action, but will try not to overwork their first-round draft pick. This leaves five other backs on the depth chart: Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, Rod Smith, Keith Smith and sixth-round pick Darius Jackson.
Despite a resurgence in 2015, Darren McFadden is still yards away from on-field action this year.
We may never know what really happened to McFadden and his elbow in the offseason; personally I am not sure if I want to know. Because of it, he is unlikely to take any snaps during the preseason. It is also possible that his rehabilitation can stretch into the regular season, as Dallas may opt to keep him on the Non-Football Injury list (NFI) which would sideline him for the first six games of the year. The Cowboys have set no timetable for McFadden’s return, though many seem eager to see if he can replicate 2015.
With 1,089 rushing yards on 239 carries behind the best offensive line in the game last year, it was McFadden’s best season since 2010. Depending on the severity of the elbow injury, it could effect how well he holds on to the ball as well. With 20 fumbles over his eight-year career, Dallas would love to keep that a thing of the past.
I expect the other two running backs to split time working kick returns and special teams assignments. Dunbar has been the most visible over the past few years, filling in for injuries mainly.
Jackson has shown potential in the preseason, racking up 90 total rushing yards on 26 carries in two games. But the rookie is undoubtedly at the bottom of the depth chart in Dallas and will need to contribute elsewhere to squeeze onto the final roster.
Rod Smith is a reclamation project whom is most famous for being kicked off the Ohio State team in 2014 for a failed drug test. He made the transition from running back to fullback this offseason. Rod is also the brother of the Cowboys 2016 second round pick, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Keith Smith is another project; a converted linebacker to fullback, with the hands of a defender. It is unknown if either player will crack the final 53-man roster at their new position.
The Cowboys are going to have to make cuts, and it may be uncomfortable.
So what are the Cowboys to do? It makes no sense to keep six running backs on the 53-man roster come September 3rd. Cuts are going to have to be made, and it may be uncomfortable. Elliott is the future of the franchise, period. Dallas would not have taken him fourth overall in April’s NFL Draft if they did not think that way. Look at Dallas’ track record; the last two running backs Dallas took that high were Tony Dorsett and Emmitt Smith. Two words: Cowboys’ royalty.
Dallas’ starting backfield is obviously going to be Elliott and Morris. This will probably be in a two back set, but I do not expect Elliott to be used as a fullback; his skills are just too good. Does this mean that we will see him out in the flat in pistol or shotgun formations? Or maybe head coach Jason Garrett will line him up as a slot receiver and unbalance the line? Perhaps. The other option is a single-back set, bringing in Morris on third down. The good thing is that Dallas has options, more so than in years past.
The biggest decision Dallas is going to have to make is around McFadden. He is a big, strong back and I really do like him. But can he stay healthy? Even though he averaged 4.6 yards a carry last year, he is going to have work even harder to see much playing time. He is going to need to beat out Morris for the number two slot on the depth chart; easier said than done. But if the Cowboys opt to keep McFadden on NFI, meaning he will not take up a roster spot for the first six weeks of the year, than Dallas can wait to make that call.
If Dunbar remains on the team, which I believe he will, it will be as a kick returner and a third-down back. The same may be true for Jackson. I think Rod Smith will end up on the practice squad this year as he simply needs more time to develop at his new position. Keith Smith could be the favorite to become the Cowboys starting fullback, but the team may ultimately decide they need his roster spot in another area.