This season is Tony Pollard’s opportunity to become the Cowboys’ starting RB

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) and running back Tony Pollard (20) Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) and running back Tony Pollard (20) Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports /

Fielding a talented running back has helped elevate the Dallas Cowboys offense to elite status. That was true in the 1970s, 1990s, and over the past eight years. The team’s 2016 first-rounder, Ezekiel Elliott, has held the position of the team’s go-to running back for five years. But that time may be coming to a close.

RB2 Tony Pollard has emerged as a versatile running back, and his development has made him a candidate to do what was once unthinkable.

The first four seasons of Elliott’s career were spectacular. He was arguably the best back in the NFL, but his production has sharply declined over the past two years.

Pollard is a much different back than Elliott is, but that’s perfectly fine. The Ohio State product is a power back that will wear down a defense, while Pollard will torch them or break their ankles. He is also a viable weapon as a receiver.

The 2019 fourth-rounder’s 5.5 yards per run in 2021 is more than Elliott has had in any season. It tied for the fifth-highest in the NFL. Pollard’s 6.2 yards per touch that same year ranked second among running backs and is far more than Elliott’s career-high of 5.6.

After impressive growth year-over-year, Tony Pollard can now become the Dallas Cowboys’ starting RB

From an efficiency standpoint, the Memphis product appears to be the better choice moving forward. That is especially considering his ability to play at wide receiver as he did in college.

The NFL is a pass-heavy league. Running backs must now adjust to find a role to help make that part of the game better beyond just running the ball. Elliott is versatile in his ability to block and sometimes makes an occasional catch. Pollard does it by running routes and making plays in space.

Let’s also remember that longevity at the running back position is not common. Their countless hits make it almost impossible to be dominant for a long time. While Elliott has just under 2,000 career touches (which don’t include picking up blocks), Pollard has a low 399.

The biggest issue surrounding overtaking Elliott is the massive contract he signed. He is currently on the hook for $18.2 million against the cap in 2022.

While releasing him this season could cost a huge $30 million dead cap hit, that number drops to $11.9 million next season. With a $16.7 million cap hit for 2023, releasing the former Buckeye would save America’s Team just under $5 million.

This season is the Memphis native’s last under his rookie contract. His limited use, low overall production, and competition with Zeke will allow owner Jerry Jones to work out a contract with a low cap hit. Something like a two-year deal averaging around $6.5 million will do.

The next big question is if Pollard will be able to handle the role of being a starter. Taking more hits will be an adjustment that the back must make. The snap management allowed him to stay fresh. We have to see if he can handle a more significant workload. If he can, the Cowboys are incredibly lucky.

The likelihood of the Cowboys moving on from Zeke this season is borderline impossible. However, a solid season from Pollard and the ability to save some cap space this upcoming offseason opens the window to have No. 20 become No. 1 on the depth chart.