Cowboys RB depth chart: How signing Ezekiel Elliott, avoiding RB in 2024 NFL Draft impacts Dallas backfield

When the Cowboys lost Tony Pollard to the Titans during the 2024 NFL offseason, many presumed the team would acquire a proven veteran or a high-impact rookie to replace him.

The former scenario never happened ahead of the 2024 NFL Draft. That’s why many expected Dallas to use a second- or third-day draft pick to acquire a potential successor for Pollard.

Some thought that could end up being Texas running back Jonathon Brooks. The Cowboys were connected to him thanks to some not-so-subtle remarks by Jerry Jones ahead of Day 2 of the 2024 NFL Draft.

“In 30 years, I thought it was the best interview I’ve ever had with a player. [Brooks] is outstanding,” Jones said, per Cowboys.com. “We got him high, high, high (on our board). He’s a good player.”

The Cowboys never got a chance to select Brooks. The Panthers traded up to choose the Texas running back with the 46th overall pick, 10 picks ahead of Dallas’ second-round choice at 56.

As a result, the Cowboys passed on a running back at 56 and didn’t select one with their third-round picks either. That left many presuming they would pick up some competition for Rico Dowdle and Co. on Day 3 of the draft.

Instead, they passed on the position and targeted a familiar face to provide them with depth once the draft concluded.

Dallas is reportedly signing Ezekiel Elliott to shore up their running back depth. The former Cowboys star spent the 2023 season with the Patriots and proved that he is still a rock-solid role player and power back.

What does Dallas’ running back depth chart look as Elliott returns to the organization? Here’s what to know about the collection of runners the Cowboys currently have on their roster.

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Cowboys RB depth chart

1. Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott may have been a late-offseason signing, but he still figures to be Dallas’ workhorse back. The Ohio State product has handled at least 235 touches in each of his eight NFL seasons to date, and he has often been an effective runner during his NFL career.

Some may point to Elliott’s 3.5 yards per carry average from last season as a warning sign of an imminent decline, but it’s worth noting that he posted those numbers playing behind a porous Patriots offensive line. New England didn’t have a quality threat at quarterback either, so defenses were able to focus on stopping the run, which helps explain Elliott’s career-low 37.8 rushing yards per game.

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Elliott should have a better chance to succeed behind a solid Cowboys offensive line with Dak Prescott playing quarterback. Teams won’t key in on stopping him as they used to, so he figures to be an effective goal-line hammer with enough burst to be a solid, every-down runner.

This version of Elliott won’t be the same one that the Cowboys early in his career, when he twice led the NFL in rushing yards and recorded 300-plus carries per season. Still, he’s the most proven and effective back that Dallas has, so expect him to get a majority of the team’s rushing workload — barring another surprise addition at the position.

2. Rico Dowdle

Dowdle is Dallas’ top returning running back. The 25-year-old went undrafted out of South Carolina in 2020 but has turned into a decent rotational back, racking up 505 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns on 106 touches as Tony Pollard’s top backup in 2023.

Dowdle averaged 4.1 yards per carry and totaled 17 catches in his backup role. He has the size (6-0, 215 pounds) needed to be an effective rotational player and may challenge Elliott for carries during training camp.

That said, Dowdle is probably better served as a backup, so it seems unlikely that Elliott will fall behind him on the depth chart barring a major regression from the former No. 4 overall pick.

3. Royce Freeman

The Cowboys signed just three new players from the start of free agency in mid-March to the 2024 NFL Draft. Freeman was one of them, and the 28-year-old veteran profiles similarly to Dowdle. He has great size at 6-0, 238 pounds, and he proved last year he can be a solid rotational power back.

Freeman totaled 319 yards and two touchdowns on 77 carries with the Rams, matching Dowdle’s 4.1 yards per carry. The 2018 third-round pick doesn’t do much as a receiver, however, so he is mostly an early-downs back and a potential special teams contributor.

The Cowboys are Freeman’s fifth team in the past five seasons, so it isn’t clear whether he will stick as a member of the team’s 53-man roster.

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4. Deuce Vaughn

Vaughn was a sixth-round pick of the Cowboys in the 2023 NFL Draft and drew a lot of attention after his father Chris, who works for Dallas’ front office, called him to break the news. That emotional moment may have been the younger Vaughn’s biggest rookie highlight, as his playing time was limited.

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The 5-6, 176-pound back totaled just 40 yards on 23 carries but made more of an impact as a receiver, catching seven passes for 40 yards. Vaughn also returned a handful of punts, so his value as a pass-catcher and special teams player could ultimately allow him to beat Freeman for the No. 3 running back job. It’s just a matter of whether he can do enough between the tackles to be active on game days.

5. Malik Davis

Davis saw action in 2022, when he handled 38 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown, but he didn’t play an offensive snap for the Cowboys in 2023. He hung around on the practice squad and saw action late in the season on special teams.

Davis is 5-11, 202 pounds, but he faces an uphill battle to make Dallas’ roster. Perhaps he can outduel Vaughn or Freeman in the Cowboys’ pecking order, Elliott’s re-signing may relegate the Florida product to a man fighting for a practice squad spot.

6. Snoop Conner

The Jaguars selected Conner in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Ole Miss product appeared in eight games for them as a rookie, totaling 42 yards and a TD on 12 carries.

Conner failed to make the Jaguars roster in 2023 and signed with the team’s practice squad. The 23-year-old wasn’t retained after the season, so Dallas scooped him up, hoping to tap into the 5-10, 222-pound back’s upside.

Like Davis, Conner was already facing an uphill battle to make Dallas’ roster. It was only further complicated by Elliott returning to the Cowboys.

7. Nathaniel Peat

The Cowboys didn’t select a running back in the 2024 NFL Draft, but they added Peat as an undrafted free agent. The Missouri product was largely a rotational player during his college career and recorded 398 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns on 82 touches during his final year with the Tigers.

Peat (5-10, 197 pounds) is a longshot to make Dallas’ roster, but if he can move ahead of Conner and Davis quickly, he will at least give himself a chance to remain with the organization in 2024.

Still, Peat’s addition was certainly not the high-upside rookie for which most Dallas fans were hoping.

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Is Ezekiel Elliott going back to the Cowboys?

The Cowboys agreed to re-sign Elliott just two days after the final round of the 2024 NFL Draft, per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapoport. The terms of Elliott’s deal weren’t immediately disclosed, but the veteran running back will return to Dallas after spending the first seven years of his career with the Cowboys.

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Elliott’s return isn’t all that surprising. The Cowboys hadn’t officially re-signed Elliott before the 2024 NFL Draft, but reports during the draft indicated that the two sides were likely to reach an agreement, per Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News.

“Cowboys could draft a running back today with one of their three picks,” Gehlken posted to X (formerly Twitter) Friday. “The choice won’t change the expectation Ezekiel Elliott will rejoin Dallas backfield in 2024 to complement and help mentor that rookie. This has been the sense for several weeks. Now increasingly imminent.”

Elliott spent the 2023 NFL season with the Patriots after the Cowboys released him in a salary cap-related move. He racked up 955 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns while sharing a workload with Rhamondre Stevenson.

Elliott (6-0, 225 pounds) provides the Cowboys with familiarity and yet another potential power back for their offense. The No. 4 pick from the 2016 NFL Draft will turn 29 in July, but he may still slot in as the No. 1 running back for the Cowboys after inking a deal with them. Perhaps Dowdle will split the workload with him, but with the team choosing not to select a rookie running back in the 2024 NFL Draft, Elliott seems likely to be a big part of Dallas’ offense.

Elliott is more proven than Dowdle and Davis, and he’s performed better than Freeman during his career, so this was a smart late-offseason signing by the Cowboys.

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