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Would the Cowboys consider drafting a running back in the first round?

Mike Florio and Chris Simms react to Mike McCarthy’s remarks on returning to play calling and evaluate why they're unsure if this will elevate the Cowboys to the next level or be a half-measure.

Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said this week he wants to “run the damn ball.” The Cowboys already had the sixth-most rushing attempts last season with 531, trailing only the Eagles, Browns, Commanders, Falcons and Bears.

Yet, Malik Davis, who had 38 carries for 161 yards and a touchdown in his rookie season, is the only sure thing on the roster for 2023.

Pro Bowler Tony Pollard is scheduled for free agency, and Ezekiel Elliott, who turns 28 this summer, is due to make a $10.9 million base salary in 2023 and has no guaranteed money left on his contract. The Cowboys are expected to use the franchise tag on Pollard and offer Elliott a pay cut to stay.

Even if they keep both Pollard and Elliott for 2023, they could lose both in 2024.

That begs the question about whether the Cowboys, who drafted 26th, would use a first-round choice on a running back. They drafted Elliott fourth overall in 2016.

“I think it depends on what part of the first round,” Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said this week, via Todd Archer of ESPN. “If you’re up there in the top 10, it’s hard to take them there. You definitely, if you’re taking a player in the top half, you’re hoping you got a player that’s going to be here 10 years. And it’s tough for running backs to last 10 years. There’s not many Emmitt Smiths or guys that play that long.”

Smith, drafted 17th overall in 1990, played 15 seasons and set the NFL’s all-time rushing record.

Elliott has played seven seasons, but in 2022, he had a career-low 231 carries, a career-low 876 rushing yards, a career-low 3.8 yards per carry, a career-low 17 receptions and a career-low 92 receiving yards. In two postseason games, he had 23 carries for 53 yards and three catches for 16 yards and no touchdowns.

Jones said the Cowboys still are formulating a plan for their running backs room.

“We haven’t finalized any decisions yet in terms of what that room’s going to look like, but Zeke’s a tremendous competitor, just a great teammate, a great competitor,” Jones said. “Obviously, he’s making a lot of money. He knows that. Obviously, Tony Pollard’s up for free agency, so that’s a challenge. We’ll work through that.”

The Cowboys gave Elliott a second contract in 2019, signing him to a six-year extension worth $90 million. Jones said the team has no regrets about using a high pick on Elliott.

“Zeke obviously did an amazing job for us. He came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games,” Jones said. “I don’t second-guess that one, but it is hard for these guys to play 10 years at a real high level.”

Texas running back Bijan Robinson is expected to go at some point in the first round, but NFL teams don’t value running backs as they once did. So, he might not go as high as perhaps he should.

Thus, if he starts falling, could the Cowboys end up with him as they did receiver CeeDee Lamb in 2020?

“Once you’re into 26, normally, I think we say we’ve got 18-20 [players graded as] first-rounders on the board,” said Jones, whose team hasn’t drafted a back since Pollard in the fourth round in 2019. “So usually when you’re picking 26, you’re pretty lucky if there’s still a first-rounder left on your board. Usually that’s been picked over, and you’re taking those players there.

“I think certainly if the right guy were there and you loved him and you needed him, then you’d take him.”