With the appeals hearings regarding Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension on-going, and the associated uncertainty on the Cowboys running back depth chart, the team has a decision to make about who will get the lion’s share of the work in the backfield should Elliott actually miss time in 2016.
The Cowboys feel as though they have the type of quality depth that will allow them to weather an Elliott suspension, and took steps to protect themselves in the event that it would occur. They have veteran Alfred Morris under contract, and re-signed veteran Darren McFadden to a one-year deal for 2017. In addition, the team moved Rod Smith back from fullback to running back, and signed Ronnie Hillman just before the start of camp. It’s likely no team in the NFL has the same level of quality running back depth that the Cowboys do.
An important thing to consider about the Cowboys approach to the running back position is they rarely utilize a committee approach at the position. In 2013 and 2014, DeMarco Murray carried almost the entire load at running back. In 2015, Joseph Randle led the way for the first five games and Darren McFadden took over for the last 11 games after an injury to Randle. Of course, in 2016, Elliott was the man.
Because the team is looking for a runner who can fill all three jobs of the running back position, they need someone who can run the ball, catch passes out of the backfield and hold up against blitzing linebackers and safeties in pass protection.
Through out the preseason, Rod Smith has been an outstanding player for the team, and one of the best running backs in the league in multiple categories.
Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris both average more yards per carry running the ball than Smith’s 4.5. But the two vets have had the benefit of running behind the Cowboys’ first-string offensive line, while Smith has run entirely behind back ups, making his 4.5 yards per carry even more impressive.
— Alexandre Thomasson (@Nex_27) August 30, 2017
Based on this yards after contact number, Smith has been hit, on average, within a yard of the line of scrimmage, and has turned those runs into nearly five yards. Additionally, he has forced more missed tackles than any running back in the NFL this preseason.
In terms of ability as a receiver out of the backfield, very few backs in the NFL have been as productive in this role as Smith has been.
The most productive running backs out of the backfield so far this preseason pic.twitter.com/481bLFad2T
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) August 30, 2017
Throughout the preseason, Rod Smith has been one of the most effective running backs in the entire NFL, both running the ball and catching it. His running style is more effective than McFadden’s in the zone running scheme that the Cowboys prefer to utilize. He’s able to create more on his own and do more after contact than McFadden. In the passing game, he is more dependable in protection than Morris has been, and can be an impact player as a receiver.
Because of his ability to perform consistently through the preseason, and the factors above which highlight how he fits exactly what the Cowboys want out of a running back, it’s rather clear, despite the teams loyalty to McFadden, it is Smith who should get the first shot to fill in for a suspended Elliott.