What does Cowboys' backfield look like behind Tony Pollard?

OXNARD, Calif. -- Since 2019, the Dallas Cowboys always felt they had proper running back depth behind Ezekiel Elliott.

Tony Pollard was so good in his first training camp that year that it prompted owner and general manager Jerry Jones to jokingly say, “Zeke, who?” while Elliott held out for a large contract. With his speed and elusiveness, Pollard was a perfect complement to Elliott’s strength and power, eventually supplanting Elliott as the Cowboys’ lead back last season, a move some believe should have been made sooner.

In March, the Cowboys released Elliott (who joined the Patriots Monday) and placed the franchise tag on Pollard to secure his play for at least 2023, but do they have the requisite depth behind him as they enter the season? It’s one reason why connections are being made to veteran free agents like Dalvin Cook (who reportedly is joining the Jets), Leonard Fournette and anybody else available.

Ronald Jones was signed in free agency in March, but he is facing a two-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. In addition, he suffered a groin injury in practice that could limit his preseason work.

That leaves the Cowboys with Rico Dowdle, Malik Davis and Deuce Vaughn as the top contenders behind Pollard.

“Biggest opportunity of my life obviously to backup TP and get that No. 2 spot,” Dowdle said. “I’ve been here four years, so looking forward to the competition and the battle and the opportunity that comes with it and that spot, being in that No. 2 role.”

Dowdle was speaking for himself and everybody in that chase, perhaps even including undrafted rookie Hunter Luepke.

Whatever happened in the preseason opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars was not going to settle the winner, but Vaughn had the best day with eight carries for 50 yards and a touchdown. Dowdle had six carries for 21 yards but fumbled on a 24-yard catch at the Jaguars' 1-yard line. Davis had just 3 yards on four carries as the Cowboys’ backup offensive line had a difficult time against Jacksonville’s starters.

Vaughn, who is just 5-foot-5, wanted to show what he did at Kansas State could convert to the NFL. What did he prove?

“Just that I belong,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing for myself -- coming in and proving the people that believe in me right. It doesn’t stop now.”

With two preseason games and Pollard unlikely to get any work before the opener, as coach Mike McCarthy protects his regulars, the backup running backs won’t lack for opportunities.

Dowdle has been with the Cowboys since 2020 and Davis since last season, but they were in the shadows of Elliott and Pollard.

Dowdle has seven carries for 24 yards in his career, but he hasn't carried the ball since 2020 because of hip and ankle injuries. Davis played in 12 games as an undrafted rookie in 2022, finishing with 38 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown.

“It brings out the competitiveness and also it’ll bring out the best in each other,” Davis said. “So I think it’s going pretty well. Guys are competing. We all know we’re competing for reps, and I think that’s what’s going to bring out the best in us and make us go out there and play our best games.”

The deployment of the backup running back figures to be different this season.

From 2016 to 2019, the Cowboys’ running game was almost exclusively about Elliott. In 2016, ’18 and ’19, Elliott had more than 300 carries and the second-leading running back topped out at 86 carries. In 2017, Alfred Morris had 115 carries because Elliott was suspended six games.

From 2020 to 2022, Pollard’s carries increased from 101 to 130 to 193.

Excluding 2017 when Elliott was suspended, the Cowboys have not had three running backs with at least 50 carries in a season since 2010 when Felix Jones had 185, Marion Barber 113 and Tashard Choice 66.

In McCarthy’s 13 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, he had three running backs with at least 50 carries four times (2007, 2012, 2016, 2017).

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be able to run at people downhill,” McCarthy said. “You’re only going to get outside so many times. But this game, running the football, pass protection, it happens between the [tackles].”

While the Cowboys will miss Elliott’s production in short-yardage and goal-line situations, they will also miss his pass protection. However, McCarthy praised the work new running backs coach Jeff Blasko has done with the young backs in teaching those intricacies.

“It’s just as important as protecting the ball,” Davis said. “We have a great quarterback and we want to be able to protect him at all times. ... Pass protection is No. 1 on the top of the list.”

Vaughn’s diminutive size is a drawback when it comes to pass protection, but he has shown a willingness to get the job done in camp. Plus, McCarthy said they will make sure he is not asked to block 250-pound edge players by himself often.

But Prescott likes what Vaughn has shown in the passing game.

“He’s got some stuff. He’s special,” Prescott said. “He’s another receiver. One of the best, probably, pass-catchers or most natural pass-catchers I can say that we have on the team.”