How Can Dallas Cowboys Make Up for Potential Ezekiel Elliott Absence?
On Monday, Ezekiel Elliott's legal team is scheduled to be at a court hearing at 4 p.m. ET to discuss a potential temporary restraining order and an injunction against the NFL's six-game suspension of the running back.
After winning a court hearing on Oct. 17, Elliott once again will need to convince a judge there would be "irreparable harm" if he were to miss games while the case is tied up in the courts.
If Elliott is out, the Dallas Cowboys would desperately miss his production. Over his past four games, the sophomore has totaled 644 yards and seven touchdowns. On Sunday, he almost single-handedly beat the Washington Redskins, as he rushed for 150 yards and two scores on 33 carries.
If the Cowboys are forced to play without Elliott for the next six games, their offense will drastically suffer. However, there are some options for Dallas if Elliott is suspended. Here are six realistic options the team may need to consider after Monday's court hearing.
Feature Alfred Morris
If Elliott were to miss any games this season, the most likely scenario for the Cowboys in regard to replacing his production would be to turn to veteran Alfred Morris. Through seven games, he's been the most productive backup for the team and has been active each week.
But Morris isn't Elliott. He has 13 carries on the season for 105 yards. Those numbers are somewhat deceiving too. He had one 70-yard run against the Los Angeles Rams, skewing his average. If you remove that, his average drops to 2.9 yards per carry.
Morris is an adequate option to rotate in and out as a backup running back, but he turns 29 in December and isn't explosive enough to be a full-time back any longer. If the Cowboys were forced to rely on Morris for any significant amount of time, they would be in big trouble. However, expect them to turn to Morris if Elliott is suspended.
Feature Darren McFadden
Cowboys running back Darren McFadden has failed to record a single touch this season, but if Elliott were to miss any time this season, you can bet he would play a big role in the offense. While Morris would likely start right away, McFadden could quickly win that job because of his experience in Dallas' scheme and his speed.
In 2015, McFadden was the team's workhorse for most of the season. Despite only starting 10 games, McFadden accumulated more than 1,400 total yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry. What makes those numbers even more impressive is that almost all of them came in losses when the Cowboys didn't have a positive game script, which typically leads to higher rushing totals. He also played most of the season with quarterbacks Matt Cassel and Brandon Weeden, who often failed to scare teams deep.
At worst, expect McFadden to at least be the team's third-down back, as he has excelled as a blocker and as a receiver throughout his career. However, Dallas has kept McFadden on the shelf over the past two years for this exact occasion. One way or another, expect McFadden to find his way on to the field.
Use More of Dak Prescott's Legs
One adjustment the Cowboys could make to their offense if Elliott is missing for any amount of time is allowing quarterback Dak Prescott to carry the ball more often. But first and foremost, it's important to remember this would be a tweak to their offense rather than a full-blown change. Under no circumstance would Dallas overwork Prescott on the ground because he means that much to the franchise.
However, throughout his college and NFL career, Prescott has shown he can handle a bigger workload on the ground. In college, he had 536 carries and rushed for over 2,500 yards, along with 41 rushing touchdowns. When he left Mississippi State, he finished with the third-most total yards in SEC history, according to College Football Reference.
Prescott has been able to translate his rushing success to the NFL, as he already has nine rushing touchdowns in just 23 career games. He isn't going to kill teams with his overwhelming speed, but his power and size allow him to run the ball effectively without having to worry about his body breaking down.
If the Cowboys decide to utilize Prescott's legs more frequently, they could help him out by putting him into more read-option scenarios in which he can decide whether he wants to hand the ball off or keep it. For the most part, Prescott has done a pretty good job at avoiding big hits and collisions, so allowing him to carry the ball a few more times per game shouldn't force anyone to hold their breath on designed runs.
With how effective Prescott has been with his legs in college and in the NFL, it makes sense that Dallas would lean on him more if its star running back is missing.
Feature Rod Smith
Of the other three running backs on the roster, Rod Smith is the youngest (25) option the team could lean on. If the season starts to suddenly slip away during Elliott's absence, Dallas may opt to run more of Smith instead of the veterans McFadden and Morris.
According to the team's official website, Smith is the biggest running back on the roster, measuring in at 6'3" and 240 pounds. Luckily for the Cowboys, Smith knows how to use his size. He runs with more power than either Morris or McFadden, and depending on the game script and the opponent, he might make more sense during a given game over the veterans.
But Smith's value comes on passing downs, as he might be the team's best blocker and receiver. He made the transition to fullback last season and played fairly well. Smith is sound in pass protection, and his size allows him to match up well against blitzing linebackers. He's also an underrated receiver who can make plays down the field against linebackers and safeties.
If Elliott is forced to serve his six-game suspension, allowing Smith to become the team's workhorse back might be the best option. This would allow them to continue to develop his game, and he might give them the best chance to win each week. But if that doesn't happen, expect Smith to see an increase in his workload no matter which player is named the team's starter.
Use More of the Short-Passing Game
If none of the options at running back seem attractive or simply aren't producing, one direction the Cowboys could go as a team would be to throw the ball more. Over the past several years, we have seen teams like the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions utilize the short passing game to replace some of the production of a traditional rushing attack.
Pats signal-caller Tom Brady is one of the best in the league at being able to cover up his team's ineffectiveness in the run game by throwing the ball short and getting it out of his hands quickly. By utilizing the screen game as well as the underneath routes to slot receivers, Brady can effectively pass the ball accurately enough to cover up his team's lack of a running game.
While Prescott clearly isn't Brady, the Cowboys do have the weapons in place with Cole Beasley and Ryan Switzer to do more of this in games if their rushing attack isn't playing at the level they are accustomed to. Allowing Prescott to have more control of the offense and putting the ball in his hands more often could help accelerate his development dramatically.
Trade for a Running Back
If the Cowboys don't love any of their other options at running back on their roster, they could explore making a move before the trade deadline. The league's trade deadline is on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. Luckily for the Cowboys, they should have a decision on Elliott's court hearing before then.
One player who could be attractive for the Cowboys is T.J. Yeldon, who is buried on the Jacksonville Jaguars depth chart. Yeldon would be an ideal fit in the Cowboys' zone-heavy blocking scheme, and he's got the ability to play on all three downs. With the Jaguars already having Leonard Fournette and Chris Ivory on their roster, Dallas would probably be able to snag Yeldon for a conditional Day 3 pick.
Another player who could make sense for the Cowboys is Denver Broncos running back Devontae Booker. He is the Broncos' third running back behind C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles and is failing to get many touches in that offense. Booker has just six carries for the season, so it's not hard to imagine the Broncos would be open to trading him.
In 2016, Dallas gave Booker a third-round grade coming out of the draft, according to a Blogging The Boys article. Like Yeldon, Booker is a three-down back who could be had for a late Day 3 selection.
However, don't expect the Cowboys to make a high-profile trade for a running back. The team clearly likes its depth in the running back room and would like to see its guys be given a chance to win that job if Elliott isn't available.