The Cowboys have handled the running back position perfectly this offseason

April 29, 2024

Some people are fine with how the Cowboys are handling the running back spot.

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Washington Commanders

The 2024 NFL Draft has come and gone, and while teams are still doing their final bit of work on signing players from the undrafted free agent pool, the Cowboys have just about wrapped up the most significant player-acquisition event of their offseason.

That has led to quite the outrage from segments of the fan base over the team’s decision not to use a draft pick on the running back position despite having a perceived need there. While they did add a running back in undrafted free agency on Sunday morning, in the form of Missouri’s Nate Peat, fans were likely expecting a bigger investment after some buzz around big names like Jonathon Brooks or Trey Benson.

Yet, as the draft raged on, Cowboys insiders began to talk more and more about the likelihood of a reunion with Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas. Now, with the draft officially over, that seems like an inevitability, bringing Elliott back after one year in New England to form a competition with Rico Dowdle, Deuce Vaughn, Royce Freeman, Malik Davis, Hunter Luepke, Snoop Conner, and Peat.

This lineup isn’t going to move the needle for most, but the Cowboys have actually handled this position perfectly. For starters, any big name the team could have added at running back in this draft would have been either a big reach or required the Cowboys to trade up, which is almost always a bad idea when doing so for a non-quarterback. Consider:

  • Jonathon Brooks was drafted 46th overall, 10 picks before Dallas was on the clock and 17 picks after their previous pick
  • Trey Benson was drafted 66th overall, seven picks before their next pick and 10 picks after their previous pick
  • 13 running backs were drafted between the Cowboys’ final pick on Day 2 and their first pick on Day 3, including Isaiah Davis being drafted immediately before their fifth-round pick

Simply put, the draft board didn’t fall in a way that made sense for the Cowboys to take a running back. Benson fans will argue he could have been taken instead of Marshawn Kneeland, but that would have been a reach relative to the average draft projection for Benson. The same goes for any running back the Cowboys might have taken in the third round instead of Marist Luifau.

Not only did the Cowboys stick to their guns on the value of their draft board, but the players they did take will contribute more directly to the team’s success on the ground than any running back they could’ve taken.

It has been heavily supported by data for a while now that – with a few exceptions, like Barry Sanders – a running back is only as good as the offensive line blocking for him. Even Christian McCaffrey struggled to consistently produce in Carolina, but he’s been the best running back in the NFL since arriving in San Francisco and rushing behind the likes of future Hall of Famer Trent Williams.

The Cowboys made several big additions to their offensive line in this draft, starting with Tyler Guyton. Not only does Guyton offer a rare blend of size and athleticism, both of which should contribute greatly to his run blocking ability, but Guyton’s selection allows Tyler Smith to remain at left guard, where he just earned All-Pro honors and finished fifth among guards in run-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus.

Then, the Cowboys landed Cooper Beebe in the third round. While Beebe mostly played guard in college, he’s expected to slot in at center and has already been training with OL guru Duke Manyweather at the position. Beebe also possesses ideal size and athleticism and was a stellar run blocker for Kansas State. The other two starters along this Cowboys offensive line are Zack Martin and Terence Steele, who have received plenty of accolades for their run-blocking prowess over the years.

It’s easier said than done, but the Cowboys should be able to field a productive ground game behind this line. Dowdle had periods last year where he looked like the better running back in Dallas, and he finished the year 33rd in rushing success rate. And while Elliott’s time in Dallas ended on a sour note production-wise, he enjoyed a career rejuvenation in a rotational role with the Patriots, finishing 37th in success rate.

There also remains the possibility that the Cowboys find another diamond in the rough. Vaughn flashed legitimate playmaking ability in the preseason, and he should be ready for a role in the offense after taking last year to acclimate to the NFL. Plus, he’ll now be running behind his former lineman in Beebe. Davis has also showed some promise in the past, while Freeman was once a starter in this league.

There may not be any surefire stars in this Cowboys backfield, but the team has amassed a decent mix of veterans and young players with traits while investing their resources more appropriately into the group of big uglies that will be charged with clearing the way upfront.

That was the same approach that once led to a 28 year old Darren McFadden putting up 1,000+ yards behind The Great Wall of Dallas 3.0, and it may just happen again in 2024. Even if there isn’t a 1,000+ yard rusher on this team, the aggregate of running back talent should be quite productive behind this new-look offensive line.