News & Analysis

Tony Pollard can carve out a major role in Dallas' backfield — with or without Ezekiel Elliott

For a brief moment, without glancing at the jersey, the casual fan would’ve sworn it was Ezekiel Elliott. Upon closer inspection, with about five minutes remaining in the first quarter of the Dallas Cowboys’ second preseason game, it was number 36. Not 21.

Barrelling into the endzone after nearly stumbling for a minimal gain, rookie running back Tony Pollard’s semblances of his superstar predecessor — who has held out of training camp and preseason but could be back sooner rather than later — were on full display.

The preseason touchdown was meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but with the Cowboys in need of a replacement for Elliott if he continued to stay away, owner Jerry Jones was more than pleased.

“Zeke who?” Jones said after Pollard’s five-carry, 42-yard performance.

Most teams have finalized their 53-man units for the start of the season, aside from a scattering of moves over the next few days, and Pollard finds himself in the driver’s seat at the running back position after posting a 75.3 preseason grade (6th among 83 qualifying running backs).

That is unless Elliott returns.

At Memphis, Pollard found himself behind Darrell Henderson, now a member of the Los Angeles Rams. Still, he made the most of his touches with a 7.1 yards per attempt average and 3.54 yards after contact per attempt.

As a result, just 58 picks after the Rams selected Henderson in the 2019 NFL Draft; the Cowboys went with Pollard. He quickly found himself practicing with the first team after Elliott didn’t report to the team, and his preseason production was nothing short of promising.

Pollard’s performance mirrored that of what he was able to accomplish in 2018 at Memphis, ranking sixth in yards after contact per attempt (3.47) and tied for third in yards per attempt (5.6) this preseason. And that was all behind a Dallas’ offensive line that graded out as the third-worst run-blocking unit in the 2019 preseason.

In the regular season, Pollard will be behind a far better unit — one that’s home to Zack Martin (73.4 run-blocking grade in 2018), La’el Collins (72.0) and Tyron Smith (67.9). Last season, playoffs included, the Cowboys’ running backs forced the fifth-fewest missed tackles per carry. But the unit still managed to churn out the eighth-most first downs (91) and the eighth-most yards (1,762) — a testament to strong offensive line play.

There’s a chance Pollard doesn’t get to see what he can do behind that offensive line on a regular basis, but given the current circumstances, it’s looking more and more likely.

The assumption is that Elliott will return at some point, leaving him and Pollard to work their magic in what could be one of the league’s more dynamic backfield. The football world is well aware of what Elliott is capable of from a production standpoint — he had the most carries (304), the most yards (1,434), the most first-down rushes (71) and the most runs of 10-plus yards (41) in 2018.

But with the running back position proving to be as fluid as ever across the NFL, Pollard could slot in seamlessly. It’s unlikely that the rookie would put up numbers anywhere close to Elliott’s line from 2018, but he does offer one novelty: ball security.

Over the last three seasons, no running back has more fumbles than Elliott’s 12. Pollard, meanwhile, didn’t fumble once in 140 rushing attempts throughout his college career. That led to two straight seasons of an 80.0-plus fumbling grade.

While PFF Fantasy projections have Elliott going for about 1,150 yards and eight touchdowns in 2018 compared to Pollard’s 225 yards and about two touchdowns, each can bring something different to the table.

And with Pollard showing this preseason that his limited college snaps were no fluke, the Dallas backfield appears to very much OK — with or without Elliott.

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