3 significant questions for the Cowboys at running back

The Cowboys haven't had this much uncertainty at running back since Ezekiel Elliott burst on in 2016. But the unproven group led by Tony Pollard is ready to rebuild itself in 2023.
(left to right) Malik Davis, Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb take the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 18, 2022.
(left to right) Malik Davis, Tony Pollard and CeeDee Lamb take the field against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Dec. 18, 2022. / Courtney Culbreath/GettyImages
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The 2023 season is a debut for a new-look Dallas Cowboys running back room that may not have much turnover in upcoming years. 

If Jerry Jones is consistent with his long-standing ideologies, Tony Pollard isn’t going anywhere after 2023. Malik Davis is an exclusive-rights free agent in 2023 and Rico Dowdle joins him as a restricted free agent; either will be a Cowboy for at least the next two years if the Jones’s see fit. Deuce Vaughn and undrafted rookie fullback Hunter Luepke are entering rookie deals. Ronald Jones is the only back whose future is truly uncertain.

Ezekiel Elliott touched the ball over 240 times in every one of his seasons in Dallas. His absence presents an interesting opportunity for Mike McCarthy and new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to reinvent a running back room that hasn’t had major turnover in seven seasons.

The pieces are in place for the long term. But we still don’t have a great idea how those pieces will fit together in 2023. 

Training camp and the preseason will provide some clarity before the Cowboys take the field in New Rutherford on Sept. 10. In the meantime, here are some questions fans should be asking. 

1. How large is Tony Pollard’s role in the offense?

Pollard is obviously the clear RB1 in the offense. But the definition of RB1 will change in the post-Zeke era.

It’s hard to envision McCarthy trusting Pollard with an Elliott-sized workload. The Cowboys have never used him as a bell cow back — even in three games without Zeke since 2020, Pollard averages 19.3 touches a game.

Malik Davis was on the field for 33% of offensive snaps during Pollard’s explosion against the Bears in 2022, when the latter rushed for 131 yards and three touchdowns. Whether it be Davis, Ronald Jones or Deuce Vaughn, Pollard will have plenty of talent behind him — and that talent will see the field plenty.

Much of Pollard’s 2023 snap count will also depend on where his pass blocking stands. He took a huge step forward in 2022, and if he can stay at that level, it will give McCarthy much more of an incentive to keep him on the field all three downs.

Elliott visibly lost a step in his later Dallas years. But he was a very necessary thunder to Pollard’s lightning. It’s possible Pollard emerges as a true volume back — but this isn’t likely, even if his role will almost certainly expand from years past. Expect RB2 and RB3 to handle plenty of the load.