The Dallas Cowboys had one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks last season, but their backfield should look very different in 2016. Team president Jerry Jones opted for a running back with the Cowboys’ first-round pick, and an injury to their top rusher from 2015 may allow new additions an opportunity to show what they can do this summer.
After rushing for nearly 3,700 yards in his last two seasons at Ohio State, Ezekiel Elliott was taken No. 4 in the 2016 NFL Draft by the Cowboys, going higher in the draft than any running back has in four years. He’s expected to be the team’s No. 1 option in the backfield.
Gary Brown, former NFL running back and current Cowboys running back coach, told the Washington Post that Elliott is the most complete first-year running back he’s ever encountered.
“Clearly he’s that. Clearly,” said Brown. “Run, catch, block — he does it all.”
Elliott will take away carries from Darren McFadden, who led the Cowboys and ranked fourth in the league in 2015 with 1,089 yards on the ground. But his second season with the team is already off to a poor start, requiring elbow surgery after he suffered an injury while trying not to drop his cell phone.
“I don’t want to put too much of a timetable on it,” Dallas head coach Jason Garrett said last week. “They said the surgery went well, and the overarching thing was a couple months. So we’ll see how he responds to everything, but we do anticipate him being back at some point in training camp and possibly being able to play in the opener.”
While McFadden and Elliott are expected to be on the Week 1 roster, a few running backs will be battling for one of the 53 spots. Lance Dunbar returns to the team after a knee injury limited him to just four games with Dallas in 2015, and the team drafted Darius Jackson from Eastern Michigan in the sixth round. The Cowboys also signed Alfred Morris, who spent the first four years of his career with the Washington Redskins.
If any one of those three running backs has a chance to show they can be a starter next season, it’s Morris. For the first three years of his career, Morris was one of the most consistent rushers in the NFC, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark each season from 2012-2014, including 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns as a rookie.
Morris’ production slipped last year when he rushed for a career-low 751 yards, but Washington’s offensive line was partly to blame. The Redskins’ entire running game struggled. Matt Jones, the team’s No. 2 rusher, averaged 3.4 yards per carry, even worse than Morris’ 3.7.
Morris split time with Jones and Chris Thompson, and the Redskins quickly gave up on the two-time Pro Bowler, who’s just 27 years old.
“I have no idea [what happened],” Morris said via the Star-Telegram. “It’s just the nature of the beast. I didn’t get an explanation, but I didn’t go seeking an explanation either. They weren’t going to be honest with me. I just left it at that and tried to make the most of what I did get. It was weird for me. It was different to go from being the starter to being a virtual backup in a sense. Yes, I started, but I was really backing up. It was different for me.”
It’s hard to know what to expect out of the rookie Jackson. He had 1,067 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns in his last season at Eastern Michigan, averaging 5.15 yards per carry.
Dunbar won’t be much of a threat on the ground, having failed to rush for more than 150 yards in any of his four seasons with the Cowboys. He’s most effective in the passing game, and he managed to catch 21 passes for 215 yards before he got hurt in 2015.