untung99.biz: With bigger need at backup RB maybe Cowboys smallest option is the answer

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This could be, in a couple of years, similar to the 2016 draft where true Cowboys fans can rattle off the names of all seven quarterbacks selected ahead of Dak Prescott (bonus points if you get Christian Hackenberg). Only in this case it will be the list of 13 running backs selected ahead of Kansas State’s diminutive Deuce Vaughn in the 2023 draft.

For now, all we know is that the 5-foot-5 Vaughn got off to a flying start with eight carries for 50 yards and the Cowboys’ only go-ahead touchdown in Saturday’s 28-23 loss to Jacksonville. Vaughn also looked good running routes out of the backfield, even making a leaping third-down grab to keep that TD drive alive. Come to think of it, most of his catches in the NFL may fall under the “leaping grab” category.

Why is this of any interest? Don’t the Cowboys have Tony Pollard, the NFL‘s leader in yards after contact the last four seasons, as a starting back?

Yes. Exactly.

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And it’s because Pollard is the starter (and maybe also because we are confused as to how much head coach Mike McCarthy wants to emphasize the run as the team’s new play-caller) that the battle for backup running back is significant for the first time in at least eight years. Once the Cowboys drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in 2016, the discussion was moot. Elliott was going to win rushing titles and get all significant carries, at least for the first three years.

Then the Cowboys grabbed Pollard in the fourth round, and the issue regarding the backup back was how much he should be playing. It took longer than it should have for those in charge to recognize Elliott’s decline and Pollard’s superior burst, but now it has happened. Zeke is gone and Pollard is the man. And, even for those of us who drove the Pollard bandwagon the last few years, there is legitimate curiosity as to how much of a workload he can handle over 17 weeks.

Last year when Pollard finally won the starting job at midseason, he finished with a career high 14.5 touches (runs plus receptions) per game. Zeke’s first three years in Dallas, he produced 23.6, 26.8 and 25.4 touches per game. It was after Pollard’s arrival (and Zeke’s second contract signing) that the featured back saw his production and touches decline. But even last year when Zeke fell below 4 yards per carry for the first time and was so far removed from the pass game that he did not manage 100 yards receiving for the year, he still averaged 16.5 touches — two more than Pollard.

So is it going to be Malik Davis, who started Saturday night and had a few shining moments in 2022 as a rookie out of Florida? Could it be Rico Dowdle, who had a fine catch-and-run Saturday afternoon, only to fumble at the 1-yard line? Or is Vaughn the easy answer, given all he did in college before coming to Dallas as the 212th player chosen in April?

Vaughn finished his college career with a bang, rushing for 130 yards in the Big 12 title game against TCU and 133 more in the Sugar Bowl against Alabama. These figures came as no real surprise. Vaughn topped the 100-yard rushing mark in 15 of his last 20 college games against the likes of LSU, Texas, Oklahoma State and twice each against TCU and Baylor. But it was also no surprise that he measured 5-5 at the NFL combine which is how the Giants took OU’s Eric Gray and the Colts took Northwestern‘s Evan Hull and Washington grabbed Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez Jr. before the Cowboys called Vaughn’s name on the third day of the draft.

How small is too small? We may be about to find out. But it’s no fun being a defensive lineman and watching Vaughn plant his two feet, then dart this way or that while ducking down to the level of the defenders’ waistlines. His 26-yard burst was the highlight play Saturday, but we recognize that it was backups against backups, in some cases, players who won’t make the Cowboys’ roster blocking others who won’t make the Jaguars’ squad. Like quarterbacks who play the second halves of preseason games, it’s a great time to shine for a back and possibly quite meaningless.

But Vaughn’s resume isn’t something to dismiss. Those were NFL-bound Crimson Tide and LSU Tiger defenders that he went for 279 yards rushing and four touchdowns against in his final two bowl games as a K-Stater. McCarthy said Saturday night he would not disregard plays made or potential displayed simply because it happened late in a preseason game. For the record, of the 12 backs taken ahead of him who played this weekend, only Jacksonville’s Tank Bigsby (9 for 52) and Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda (12 for 56) rushed for more yards than Vaughn — both with lower averages per carry.

Pollard may surprise some folks and turn out to be more ready for wear and tear than anticipated. In a midseason three-game stretch last year, he had 25 touches against Green Bay, 21 against Minnesota and then, four days later on Thanksgiving Day, 20 touches against New York. I don’t expect him to be Peak Zeke when it comes to durability, but barring significant injury, Pollard should rush for 1,200 yards and perform at a Pro Bowl level. Even with that, the Cowboys will need a little support off the bench.

Maybe from the shortest guy on the roster.

Find more Cowboys coverage from The Dallas Morning News here.