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The Cowboys and Tony Pollard: Where we have been and where we’re headed

(Editor’s note: Every week until the regular season, this series will put the spotlight on a key but not fully established Cowboys player who is still on his way to his finished form. It will try to examine where his journey has gone so far, where 2022 might take him and beyond. The first two players featured were TE Dalton Schultz, and last week we offered CB Trevon Diggs.)

No, I am probably not going to let this one go.

This Tony Pollard situation is one that sticks in the front of my consciousness right now, and I cannot let it go. I consider his situation the biggest contractual issue on the Cowboys’ roster. It seems a bit like you are in a building and you smell a fire, but nobody else seems to notice anything out of the ordinary. You are tempted to start yelling and pull the alarm to make sure everyone else pays attention. Maybe that is what today’s story is all about …

You see, a few days ago, newcomer and wide receiver James Washington suffered a pretty severe injury that will take him out for months. This, of course, as receiver Michael Gallup is recovering from a severe injury and another receiver, Amari Cooper, wears a Cleveland uniform. Everyone and their uncle is screaming at the Jones family to “go get someone.” Yes, the depth is shallow right now, but Gallup will be back soon. I don’t feel the urgency my colleagues seem to feel.

I may not have put this in print often enough, but allow me to reiterate in this piece. The Cowboys’ goals in 2022 must be to get the ball in the hands of those most likely to make big plays. For Dallas, that list is pretty short right now. CeeDee Lamb and Pollard are at the top of it. Jalen Tolbert has a chance to get on this list. Dalton Schultz and Ezekiel Elliott are certainly capable, but it is less consistent as they are more of the pounding type (which you do need!), but we search for explosion. And Lamb and Pollard need the rock.

That’s why I am not going to bring in some waiver-wire vet out there to block either of them. Sorry, but I’m not looking at the lists of unemployed. If Washington is down, then it seems to improve the chances of more Pollard in more situations. I want that.

I believe the league is moving in this direction. It’s the pursuit for speed. The pursuit for versatility. Looking for Alvin Kamara types who can hurt you in space with the ball, regardless if it is a pass or a run. We need to find playmakers, guys who do not depend on everyone getting a perfect block and winning their battle. You put this guy in space and he makes people miss and accelerates. If nothing in the NFL is more important these days than explosive plays, then we better find explosive players.

Pollard is all of that. He just needs a bigger chance. We know he will get one in 2023, but it might not be here.

This makes me want to pull the fire alarm in here — because we need it to happen now. In a Dallas uniform.

Now, I wrote about the 2019 draft class a few weeks ago, but many of you were surely on vacation. No problem. Here is my summary of where they are with Pollard and the need to talk extension with him post-haste …

I have already spent half of the offseason expressing frustration with the usage of Pollard and explaining the very likely possibility that they lose Elliott and Pollard in the same offseason next spring, so I probably should just post links of the previous work. Pollard has not played 400 snaps yet in a season because he is blocked by a guy Dallas likes more. This should make us all somewhat sad because Pollard is so much more explosive, and that should be Priority No. 1 in a league where the top teams become the top teams because of explosive players making explosive plays. If you could design in a lab a perfect player to unlock the Cowboys offense vs. San Francisco last wild-card round, it would probably be Pollard, and yet the Cowboys barely used him (or Lamb, to be honest).

He is not a “full-time” back, but the good news there is that teams don’t really have a full-time back anymore. They have job shares in most markets, but the Cowboys insist on not sharing this job, rather making sure Elliott maintains well more than 60 percent of the touches workload. But have no fear. This is the final year of this arrangement, and though the Cowboys might already know this, Pollard is about to become unrestricted. There is a very good chance he wants an opportunity while he is still young, and he will be highly coveted in the offseason.

2019 Dallas Cowboys Draft Class

Rnd

  

Player

  

Pick

  

Pos

  

Yrs

  

College/Univ

  

Priority Level

  

2

58

DT

3

Central Florida

small

3

90

G

2

Penn St.

small

4

128

RB

3

Memphis

medium to large

5

158

CB

3

Miami (FL)

5

165

DE

3

Miami (FL)

6

213

S

3

Texas A&M

small to medium

7

218

RB

Ohio St.

7

241

DE

Oregon

I believe the Cowboys know all of this, because many smart people work over there. Yet, the 2021 San Francisco playoff game plan gives me great amounts of pause, and the sourced information that says the Cowboys have not begun any discussions on an extension with Pollard at the moment makes me wonder.

So allow me to go over the case for you this morning.


Tony Pollard

Age: 25

College: Memphis

Drafted: 2019, Round 4, Pick 128

Height/weight/40 time: 6-0, 212, 4.52

Contract: Pollard is entering the fourth and final year of his 4-year/$3.2 million rookie contract that began in 2019. The Cowboys certainly can talk extension with him at any time, but failing to reach that, he will become an unrestricted free agent next March.

Where we have been: So much of the story has to do with circumstances beyond our control, and there is no question that applies here with Pollard. He is drafted by the Cowboys as a “web back,” which has evolved in the league to basically mean that he is not really a RB and not really a WR, but whatever they want.

Pollard can play RB very well, but given his workload at Memphis, where they had a stable of studs, we were left to project his potential with a normal workload. Just look at that 2018 Memphis backfield. Darrell Henderson is now the Rams RB, Patrick Taylor is with the Packers, Antonio Gibson is Washington’s workhorse and Kenneth Gainwell is with the Eagles. Five RBs are in the NFL from Mike Norvell’s 2018 Memphis Tigers, so the workload situation is pretty understandable. I spent a great deal of work on Pollard’s Memphis dossier back in 2018, and it definitely offers some insight of where he might be used.

Pollard arrived in Dallas at a time when Elliott was holding out in Cabo. You may recall that most of Pollard’s first training camp, he was surrounded by Darius Jackson and Mike Weber, and even Alfred Morris was brought back. Looking back, if Elliott had held out a year later, maybe Dallas doesn’t capitulate to Zeke’s demands, but with nobody at the position in 2019, the Cowboys made Elliott the richest RB in league history, including the $90 million in total value and $50m in total guarantees. Amazingly, now 36 months later, no RB contract has come close to matching or exceeding those numbers. With escalating prices at every other position, the price of that contract remains a stupefying moment in Cowboys history.

Regardless, the attempts to justify the deal meant that Pollard would spend his rookie season filling in periodically. In spurts he produced, and in a late-season home game against the Rams we really started to see what he was capable of doing.

By 2020, his playing time did jump significantly under Mike McCarthy’s crew, jumping from 19 percent to 32 percent in snap counts. He was clearly the backup RB and would jump in for the third possession of each half and assorted spots in passing situations. His work as a return man really started to pop, but as we all recall, the Dak Prescott injury greatly limited any positive offensive reviews. It was a lost season, as Dak went down and the offensive line was in shambles.

But 2021 was when things got ridiculous. Pollard was the better runner by every single metric imaginable besides playing time, goal-line touchdowns and paycheck.

Pollard was electric at times and demonstrated game-breaking skills at moments when he was badly needed. He was breaking tackles and then breaking away. The differences were stark between the players and the juice. Elliott has been a warrior and provides some elements as well. It is ridiculous to claim he brings nothing. But when it comes to adding explosiveness to the offense, there is very little question who can give you more.

But yards before contact and yards after contact both swing to Pollard. Big plays of 20-plus-yards go to Pollard easily despite playing less than a third of the snaps. It is madness.

And yet, it does not seem to affect the snap count. Total snaps in these three seasons together: Ezekiel Elliott has 2,535 and Tony Pollard has 936. But even in 2021, when it was clear that one player had the juice and one did not, Elliott still outpaced the bigger playmaker, 809 to 374. If you have nearly 1,200 snaps and Pollard doesn’t get at least half of them, we are going to wonder what is going on around here.

As I have said a few times, if Pollard is allowing bitterness to fuel his fire, he has every right. Football players are taught at an early age that if you want a better spot on the roster, go take the decision away by your play. Well, Pollard could argue that he has done plenty and yet received very little with regard to total proceeds.

Where we are headed

I believe we are headed for a collision course. We could argue very easily that the starting RB for the Cowboys in 2023 is playing college football in 2022. Zeke is cut loose of his massive contract that has certainly not aged well, and Pollard will be offered something that makes him feel like he will be the 1A in someone’s backfield. If he has already accepted in his mind that it won’t be for a coaching staff that refuses to reward him for merit, it would at least be understandable.

Pollard is not a perfect player. He will always have durability questions, but I’m not sure those have merit. That said, it’s definitely whispered that Dallas does not think he can play “full time,” and with their memories and hearts with Emmitt and Zeke, their version of a full-time back is a very high standard. I agree he is not as good at picking up blitzes, but like Kamara, Austin Ekeler and so many others, the best blitz protection is slipping into the flat and gashing the defenses for a massive gain on a throw behind your rushes. That is the best way to make a team stop blitzing for sure. Make them pay.

Stephen Jones told “The Ticket” on Wednesday that they will be “looking into” conversations with Pollard and his agent moving forward. I see a few potential options now:

1. The Cowboys approach him now. This would be uncharacteristic, and the last time they did a deal without any urgency to try to get out ahead of things probably was the Jaylon Smith extension that was a complete disaster by any method of evaluation. But this is your chance to offer Pollard something based on projection. It comes with a risk, but it also could age wonderfully if he breaks out in 2022 like I fully expect him to do so.

I think you want to lock up RB playmakers and not worry about what position his football card says. He can play slot, he can play RB. My projection for what would make me comfortable would be to use Ekeler’s deal in March of 2020 at 4/$24.5 million/$15m guaranteed when the Chargers had a nearly identical situation with Melvin Gordon as “Zeke” on the big contract and Ekeler playing the role of Tony Pollard. The deal seemed a big risk with Ekeler, but it has aged incredibly well. Gordon’s deal expired in 2019, so perhaps we could argue that there was no uncomfortable goodbye. Ekeler’s deal by today’s standards would probably be an offer to Pollard of about 4/$32m/$20m guaranteed or $8m a year.

2. The Cowboys wait and do a deal in the spring or even franchise-tag him. Incidentally, the tag was $9.5 million for a RB in 2022, so let’s assume it will be about there. If you are Pollard, do you accept an extension then or do you wait to see what everyone else would want to offer? Could he get up to Aaron Jones’ deal of four-years, $48 million and $13 million guaranteed? The Packers pushed Jones to $12 million per year, but the guarantee was lower than even Ekeler.

3. Just let Pollard (and Zeke) walk and draft a player or two next spring and start over.

(Photo of Tony Pollard: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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