FRISCO, Texas – Ezekiel Elliott has led the league in rushing yards per game each of his three years with the Dallas Cowboys.
Last season, he piled 304 rushes atop 77 catches to amass 2,001 yards from scrimmage.
The Cowboys picked up Elliott’s fifth-year option for 2020 this month and speak openly about their long-term commitment to him.
Still, Dallas drafted Memphis running back Tony Pollard in the fourth round, 128th overall.
“We understand what Zeke is to our football team and to our organization to our success,” running backs coach Gary Brown said Friday. “It’s important for us as an organization to maximize his ability to go out and help us win championships. The way to do that is take a little bit off him.”
Elliott hasn’t expressed a desire to reduce his involvement. Yet he already has raced to more than 1,000 regular-season touches despite missing six games to suspension in 2017 and resting two Week 17 games after Dallas clinched the division last year and in 2016.
“It’s just physics,” Brown said. “Year after year with that type of workload, eventually, anyone’s going to slow down. We’re trying to preempt that and take care of him now.”
When Pollard was drafted, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones compared his potential to that of Alvin Kamara complementing Mark Ingram with the New Orleans Saints. The assumption, based on that comparison: Pollard would be an all-purpose weapon for new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, even if not as a traditional backup.
But the Cowboys plan for Pollard to add more than just wrinkles.
“I know people think he’s going to be this gadget guy,” Brown said. “He’s more than that. He’s bigger than what you think he is and he runs powerful for a guy you think is a gadget guy. I think he can do all our runs and more.”
Pollard’s rushing workload was limited at Memphis behind lead back Darrell Henderson, whom the Los Angeles Rams drafted in the third round. Henderson averaged more than 1,531 yards and 15 touchdowns across the last two seasons.
But Pollard still notched 1,010 yards from scrimmage in 2018 on just 117 touches. He averaged 7.1 yards a rush and 11.7 per reception, scoring nine offensive touchdowns. Pollard also starred as Memphis' kick returner, twice earning American Athletic Conference special teams player of the year honors. He averaged 30.1 yards per kick return across his career; 40 in 2017, when he also scored four touchdowns on kick returns. Pollard hopes to infuse the Cowboys with that special-teams spark.
“Field position, from starting off from the 25 or you could even start off from the 40 and cut the field down almost in half,” Pollard said of kick returns. “It definitely can do a lot and can change the game instantly.”
Pollard hasn’t met Elliott, but Brown and Moore have explained how they see his scheme fit. The rookie back marveled on Friday at Moore’s ideas for utilizing players’ strengths. For Pollard, that includes running plays both in place of Elliott and beside him. Pollard said he doesn’t view the “gadget” label as an insult – he agrees he hasn’t yet proven his ability to compete professionally.
“ ‘Change-of-pace’ back can be however you take it,” Pollard said Friday from the Cowboys locker room between minicamp practices. “The way I look at it is a guy coming in with a lot of speed being able to make the long home-run plays, also being able to run in between some tackles and get some hard yards and being able to make plays on special teams.”
Garrett emphasized Friday that “make no mistake about it, Zeke Elliott’s going to be a huge part of our football team.”
But “we got to take care of that guy,” Brown said. “Zeke wants to win championships, and I think he understands where he sits in the hierarchy of the running back room. He understands what he has to do and what he means to us, and at the same time, he understands he wants to be able to be fresh in January.
“February, if we get to the Super Bowl.”
Follow Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
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