How might Dallas Cowboys use Ezekiel Elliott in 2024?

April 29, 2024

FRISCO, Texas — The Dallas Cowboys have relied heavily on running backs throughout their history.

Cowboys RB depth chart: How signing Ezekiel Elliott, avoiding RB in 2024  NFL Draft impacts Dallas backfield | Sporting News

Emmitt Smith is the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, having spent all but two seasons of his Hall of Fame career with the Cowboys. Tony Dorsett became a Hall of Famer, like Smith, for what he did in 11 seasons with the Cowboys.

Herschel Walker came to the Cowboys in 1986 from the USFL, and while the teams he played on were not successful, he ran for 1,514 yards in 1988 and was named to the Pro Bowl twice. His trade to the Minnesota Vikings in 1989 jump-started the Cowboys to their run of three Super Bowl wins in a four-year span in the 1990s.

In 2014, DeMarco Murray was the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year after he ran for a Cowboys record 1,845 yards. In 2016, Ezekiel Elliott set a Cowboys’ rookie record with 1,631 yards rushing, and he won two NFL rushing titles (2016, ’18) in seven seasons, while becoming the franchise’s third all-time leading rusher behind Smith and Dorsett.

Now Elliott, who turns 29 in July, is expected to re-sign with the Cowboys after a one-year stint with the New England Patriots.

But Elliott’s return is not like the day when he came to Dallas as the fourth overall pick in 2016.

And the Cowboys will not ask Elliott to be that running back.

In fact, they will ask him to be the type of back he was with the Patriots last season. He was an effective part of the running game, along with Rhamondre Stevenson. He led the Patriots in rushing with 642 yards, although that was a career low. He also led the Patriots in receptions with 51.

After Day 2 of the 2024 NFL draft, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was asked if Elliott could still be a starting running back in the NFL.

He quickly answered yes, noting how Elliott ended last season in New England. In the last six games, he had at least 11 carries in each contest. He scored three touchdowns (one rushing, two receiving). But he averaged more than 3.1 yards per carry in just one game.

Was that Elliott’s fault or the byproduct of a poor Patriots’ offense?

It doesn’t much matter now.

Running back Ezekiel Elliott is expected to reunite with quarterback Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. How will they use him in 2024? Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The Cowboys are expected to go with a committee approach at running back. This is reminiscent of the rushing attack in 2003 after the Cowboys released Smith upon Bill Parcells’ arrival as head coach. Troy Hambrick was the Cowboys’ leading rusher with 972 yards on 275 carries. Fullback Richie Anderson had 70 carries for 306 yards. They also had Aveion Cason, Adrian Murrell and Erik Bickerstaff taking carries.

Elliott joins a group that consists of Rico Dowdle, Royce Freeman, Deuce Vaughn, Malik Davis, Hunter Luepke and Snoop Conner. The Cowboys agreed to a deal with Missouri running back Nathaniel Peat as an undrafted free agent.

Dowdle was the Cowboys’ second leading rusher last season with 361 yards, a career high. Freeman had 319 yards on 77 carries in 2023 with the Los Angeles Rams but has not topped 521 yards in a season, and that was his rookie year, 2018, with the Denver Broncos. Vaughn had 40 yards on 22 carries last season as a rookie. Luepke, a fullback, had six carries for 19 yards as a rookie in 2023. Davis spent most of last season on the practice squad. Conner was signed in January.

Elliott had three seasons with 300 carries in his first tenure with the Cowboys. It would not be fair to ask him to do that now. He had 237 and 231 carries, splitting time with Tony Pollard in 2021-22.

He had 184 carries in 2023.

Somehow, the Cowboys will have to find a way to improve upon a running game that ranked 14th in the NFL last season, while producing 1,920 yards on 468 carries with 14 touchdowns.

Beyond the committee, they are looking to bank on an offensive line that will have two new starters following the departures of left tackle Tyron Smith and center Tyler Biadasz. They selected tackle Tyler Guyton in the first round and will move third-round pick Cooper Beebe to center after he played every position but center in his time at Kansas State.

The Cowboys have expressed faith in in-house linemen like center Brock Hoffman, guard T.J. Bass, tackles Chuma Edoga, Asim Richards and Matt Waletzko and guard Josh Ball.

April is the time to express that faith. It’s also the time to believe the running back-by-committee approach will work.

It’s just another question Mike McCarthy will have to answer as he enters the final year of his contract as head coach.