The Cowboys’ top running back from 2022, Tony Pollard, is a free agent this off-season. The man who was arguably Dallas’ offensive MVP is likely to command top-of-the-market money and the Cowboys need to decide whether or not they can afford to keep him, or afford to lose him. Complicating matters is the uncertain status of Ezekiel Elliott. The long-time lead back in Dallas has reached the unavoidable point in his NFL career where the production may no longer match the compensation.
Releasing Elliott in a post-June cut would save the Cowboys $10,900,000 but leave an enormous hole at running back. Dallas is no doubt considering placing the franchise tag on Pollard in order to keep their most explosive weapon, and the tag would cost them just under that level of savings, $10.09 million.
There’s concern about replacing one of the most durable running backs in the NFL with someone who’s never averaged more than 13 carries per game. While the concern is valid, there’s reason to believe Pollard is up to the challenge and far more up to the task than often credited.
Pollard, 25, is in the prime of his career as an NFL running back. Although he suffered a significant lower leg injury suffered in the playoffs, Pollard is expected to make a full recovery.
The 6-foot, 209-pound running back is well built and far from the undersized reputation many incorrectly bestow upon the former Memphis product. His 722 yards gained after contact ranked fifth in the NFL last season and speaks to his ability to excel, even after initial contact.
He was sixth in broken+missed tackle percentage (20.2), while facing an average of 6.9 defenders in the box (eighth most in the NFL). He faced the 10th-highest stacked-front rate last season and still maintained a top-five breakaway run rate, per player profiler.
While Pollard didn’t carry the ball 20+ times per game last season, neither did anyone else not named Derrick Henry. The workhorse running back is dead in the NFL. Teams have learned it’s often more efficient to have multiple backs running the ball than one dominant entity carrying the load.
Not only does it diversify risk by splitting the responsibility, but it maximizes freshness which directly impacts explosive runs. Defenses breakdown regardless of who is carrying the ball so the idea “he gets better the more carries he gets” is more folklore than fact.
Whether a running back should be re-signed to top-of-the-market prices (including franchise tag) is a debate for another day. What shouldn’t be debated is whether Pollard is capable of being an RB1 in the NFL. He’s proven he can handle heavy box counts and early contact and still produce an elite explosive rate.
Even with the expected shift to more inside zone running in 2023, Pollard should be able to fill a lead role next season, provided players like Malik Davis or maybe even Ezekiel Elliott (at a reduced salary) can be complementary pieces.