With the draft quickly approaching, here is a position-by-position look at the Dallas Cowboys' roster and their potential needs:
On the roster: Ezekiel Elliott (signed through 2019, club can exercise fifth-year option for 2020), Rod Smith (signed through 2018), Jamize Olawale (signed through 2018), Trey Williams (signed through 2019)
Analysis: The Cowboys will go as far as Ezekiel Elliott takes them. A suspension kept Elliott out of six games, and he finished just 17 yards short of 1,000 yards in his second season. He was not as dynamic as he was when he led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016, but he was still the Cowboys’ best offensive threat.
The Cowboys’ offensive identity comes from Elliott. If he is right, then the offense should be right. The Cowboys went 5-3 in the first half of last season with Elliott and scored at least 28 points in six games. Just his presence makes things difficult for defenses. The running game without Elliott wasn’t bad, still ranking in the top 10, but it lacked the fear factor and the pass game became suffocated.
Without the threat of a looming suspension, the expectation is Elliott will play a full season in 2018.
“He dealt with a lot of stuff last year. I thought he handled it well,” coach Jason Garrett said. “I thought he worked his way through all of that stuff and when he was available to us, he played good football for us. He certainly had a great first year so we want to build on the last couple of years, get him back to work and just help him grow as a player. He’s certainly going to help our football team.”
Rod Smith showed last year he can help the offense. He caught 19 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. He ran 55 times for 232 yards and four touchdowns. He can help in the pass game. He can help in short-yardage situations. He can help on special teams. The Cowboys have not made a bid to retain Alfred Morris in free agency, which shows their comfort level in Smith.
Olawale, a fullback, was picked up in a trade from the Oakland Raiders after their fullback of the two previous seasons, Keith Smith, signed in Oakland. The Cowboys had Olawale on their practice squad before he left for the Raiders, so they know what he can be. He is a decent blocker and can help in the pass game. The fullback plays anywhere from 8-15 snaps a game, so the Cowboys don’t rely heavily on the spot, but Olawale has some flexibility that will help.
Williams spent most of the final two months of last season on the practice squad. He has some traits the Cowboys would like from a scat back, but he is far from a lock to make the roster in 2018.
Draft need: Elliott plays most of the snaps. He gets most of the carries. He also plays a position where injuries can happen, although he has been durable from the start of his high school career through his first two years with the Cowboys. They also like what they have in Smith.
What the Cowboys lack is space player, a mismatch type. They liked what Lance Dunbar could do in that role, but he had difficulty staying healthy. In his time as the Detroit Lions coordinator, Scott Linehan was able to get his running backs involved in the pass game in a variety of ways.
As the Cowboys look to the draft, they don’t need to have an every-down type to potentially replace Elliott if something happens to him. A year ago, the Cowboys had a lot of interest in San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey but saw the Philadelphia Eagles grab him before their pick. They opted to take receiver Ryan Switzer, who they believe can play that mismatch role some while also returning kicks.
Prediction: On the third day of the draft, the Cowboys will draft a running back. Since Smith was a pre-draft visitor, he would seem to have an edge since Hines could be gone by Day 2 or early in Day 3. In addition to drafting a back, the Cowboys will add one or two as an undrafted free agent.