The Cowboys without Ezekiel Elliot or Tony Pollard in 2023 is a possibility

For the second game in a row, Ezekiel Elliott stayed on the touchline with a knee injury. That meant Tony Pollard acted as the top running back for the Cowboys and responded with a career-high 22 carries, catching for 115 yards and a touchdown.

This is notable given that the Cowboys face a number of decisions at the running back position during the offseason. Pollard’s rookie contract expires after this year, leaving them to decide whether or not to extend the explosive runner.

Ezekiel Elliott’s contract gives the Cowboys potential this offseason that could save them close to $11 million in cap space. Otherwise, Elliott will have a $16.72 million cap hit next year, and it would be very difficult financially to leave him until his current contract expires after the 2026 season. Essentially, the Cowboys can either cut him this offseason and save heaps of money, or commit to him for the next four years.

Based on how much Jerry Jones has rushed to Elliott’s defense after each of those last two games — usually in response to Pollard playing so well that many question why Elliott makes as much as he does — it’ll be interesting who there to see the decision made. It’s unlikely the Cowboys can pay Pollard what he wants (and deserves) while keeping Elliott.

However, here’s an interesting alternative: How about both?

Both Elliott and Pollard have placed tremendous value on the Cowboys over the length of their respective careers, but at the end of the day it really boils down to a positional value argument. The running back position has been devalued significantly in recent years as teams have found proven ways to create efficient rushing attacks without exhausting themselves with the running back position.

Ironically, the cowboys proved this theory themselves as well. Several times even. They took a lot of heat for not re-signing DeMarco Murray after the 2014 season, but cheap free-agent signee Darren McFadden came in and rushed for 1,000 yards and helped Dallas rank 10th in Rushing DVOA that year. Then there’s Pollard, who was taken in the fourth round and has bested Elliott in many ways since arriving in Dallas.

Now there’s another chapter in this Running Backs Don’t Matter manifesto, and his name is Malik Davis. Davis, who signed with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent, wasn’t even good enough to make the list. He was cut at the end of preseason, and 31 other teams passed him on the waiver so the Cowboys could add him to their practice squad.

Davis was called up to the roster when Rico Dowdle landed on injured reserve, but he played exclusively on special teams. That is, until Elliott started missing games. In those last two games, Davis has spelled out Pollard, who just isn’t used to being the lead back, regardless of whether he can handle the load.

It was a small sample size for Davis, but he put up a lot of blitz. Davis has 13 carries for 61 yards — a whopping 4.7 yards per carry — and has added 18 yards on two receptions. He also came incredibly close to scoring a touchdown on one of those catches. Of Davis’ 15 touches, four have moved the chains.

None of this is enough to make us forget all the talent that Elliott or Pollard have, but it does fuel the underlying idea that you can find average, if not better, talent in the running back position, without having to invest premium draft capital or money. The stormy duo of Pollard and Davis have been electrifying in the last two games; none were drafted in the first two days of the draft, and none are in the top 75 running back salaries.

So why would the Cowboys stay with Elliott, whose overall contract value still leads the league at his position? Besides, why would they pay Pollard, which is probably quite a large sum of money? Rather than running back big bucks either, they could go free with an additional $12 million in cap space that can be used to find a starter in a more important position, like receiver or offensive line.

The Cowboys may continue to pay Elliott lots of money, but they’ve inadvertently proved time and time again that they don’t have to. And admitting so much also means they shouldn’t turn around and do the same to Pollard. As much as this front office loves to talk about cap space, they certainly aren’t smart when it comes to how they handle that money.

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