Cowboys thinking of preserving Ezekiel Elliott, but will they?

FRISCO, Texas -- When the Dallas Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016, some scoffed at the notion of taking a running back that high.

From 2006 through 2015, only six running backs went in the top 10 of the draft. Adrian Peterson, the No. 7 overall pick in 2007 to the Minnesota Vikings, was the best based on career success. In 2012, the Cleveland Browns took Trent Richardson No. 3 overall, and he was traded in his second season and was playing in the AAF earlier this spring.

In the past three seasons, no running back has as many carries (868) or yards (4,048) as Elliott, and he missed six games because of a suspension in 2017 and was held out of the season finales in both 2016 and '18.

Elliott turns 24 in July and the Cowboys recently exercised the fifth-year option on his contract for 2020 for $9.09 million, but executive vice president Stephen Jones said the goal is to "eventually" sign their star running back to a contract extension.

The Cowboys selected Tony Pollard in the fourth round and Mike Weber in the seventh round of last week's draft, not so much to replace Elliott but to preserve him, knowing that a running back has a relatively short shelf life in the NFL.

"We need some good running back skill behind Zeke," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "That covers a lot of ground if you talk about what we're doing with Zeke, but prudence tells you, you need to manage this, and these guys let us manage Zeke in a manner of speaking."

In his three seasons, Elliott has won two NFL rushing titles, just like the Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith did in his first three seasons. Elliott has accounted for 73 percent of the carries by Cowboys running backs and 76 percent of the rushing yards. In his first three seasons, Smith ran for 4,213 yards. His backups from 1990 through 1992 were Tommie Agee (53 carries, 213 yards in 1990), Ricky Blake (15 carries, 80 yards in 1991) and Curvin Richards (49 carries, 176 yards in 1992).

In 1995, when Smith was 26, the Cowboys selected Sherman Williams in the second round to potentially lighten the load on Smith, but it never really happened (hint: Smith became the NFL's all-time leading rusher).

Last season, the Cowboys did not feel as comfortable in giving Elliott breaks with Rod Smith as the top backup as they did when they had more proven backs in Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden in 2016 and '17. Rod Smith had just 44 carries for 127 yards in 2018.

If something were now to happen to Elliott, the Cowboys would take a committee approach at running back with Pollard and Weber.

"Pollard gives us some juice from the running back position, and he gives us legitimate options that threaten defenses," Jerry Jones said. "The same thing is true with Weber. Weber, it just so happens that he is from Ohio State, but he can do some of the same things -- not necessarily comparing the two -- but he can do some of those same things [as Elliott]. That was a goal coming into this draft: Let's wisely use Zeke now and in the future."

But how much will either player be used? In Jason Garrett's best years as head coach, the Cowboys have relied almost exclusively on one running back, either DeMarco Murray, who led the NFL in rushing in 2014, or Elliott.

On multiple occasions in the Garrett era, the Cowboys have talked about wanting to use a "web back" -- a player who can be used all over the formation to create mismatches, but for a variety of reasons the Cowboys never really used Lance Dunbar or Tavon Austin much.

Pollard is more of a third-down back. He had 78 carries for 552 yards and six touchdowns last season at Memphis, and caught 49 passes for 458 yards and three touchdowns. He also had six touchdowns on kick returns.

Pollard is "someone we think is a really good space player," Garrett said. "He's an excellent receiver. He's very good running the football, particularly out on the perimeter. We also feel he can run the ball inside, and he's an outstanding special-teams player, not only a great returner, a lot of great returns for touchdowns, but we also believe he can be a four-phase player on special teams. What we like most about him is what he can do on offense with the ball in his hands and what feel he can really help us in that area making some plays in space."

Speaking on Pollard, executive vice president Stephen Jones made a comparison to how the New Orleans Saints use their running backs.

"A little unfair, not at that level, don't get me wrong, a little [Alvin] Kamara to him, as to how he complemented [Mark] Ingram down in New Orleans," Stephen Jones said. "I think he can do some of that."

Weber replaced Elliott at Ohio State in 2016 and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year after running for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns. He did not top 1,000 yards again, but the Cowboys believe he can handle the load if necessary and has more variety to his game than did last year's seventh-round pick, Bo Scarbrough, who did not make the 53-man roster.

"(Weber) was in this clump with some of the other running backs who were taken earlier, and so again, we looked at each other and said, 'Why not Weber?'" Garrett said. "We feel he can be a three-down back for us, particularly good running the ball inside on first and second down. We felt that was something we wanted to add to our team."