IRVING, Texas -- A year ago at this time, the biggest question about the Dallas Cowboys' running game in 2015 was the definition of roles.
Would Joseph Randle get the chance to show that DeMarco Murray left meat on the bone in 2014? Would Darren McFadden be the No. 1 back? Would the Cowboys go with some sort of committee approach to approximate the 1,845 yards Murray ran for?
There isn’t much of a question this year.
Not with the Cowboys selecting Ezekiel Elliott in the first round.
“You don’t pick a running back with the fourth pick of the draft unless you think he’s unique,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said.
The Cowboys drafted Elliott at No. 4 in an era in which running backs have become devalued. He is the first running back picked in the top five since Trent Richardson went No. 3 overall in 2012. He is just the seventh back since 2006 to be picked in the top 10, a list that includes McFadden, who went No. 4 overall in 2008 to the Oakland Raiders.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the six running backs picked in the top five since 2005 have made one Pro Bowl. That was Ronnie Brown, who went No. 2 overall to the Miami Dolphins in 2005 and went to the Pro Bowl in 2008. The last running back picked in the top five to reach multiple Pro Bowls in his career was LaDainian Tomlinson, who went to five after being picked fifth overall in 2001 by the San Diego Chargers.
“If you’ve got one that’s special, one that brings something unique to the table, then, yeah, you use that guy more,” Jones said. “And you don’t use the committee. But if you’ve got some guys that it’s better to spread it around and led the guys do what they do best, then that can be effective to do. Obviously with the guy we just drafted he can do a little bit of everything and get in rhythm. He’s been very successful doing that. He’s caught the ball out of the backfield. He pass blocks. He rushes it very well. I think that’s why he’s been one of the more unique backs to come out in the last 10 years.”
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan has relied mostly on one ballcarrier the last two seasons. Murray had a team-record 392 carries in 2014, with Randle having the second-most with 51. Last season McFadden had 236 carries and Randle had 76.
In the first six games, when Randle was the lead back, McFadden had just two games with at least 10 carries. Once Randle was cut, McFadden was the only back to have more than seven carries in a game. Four times McFadden had at least 20 carries. Three other times he had more than 15.
In 2014, the Cowboys had just two games in which two runners reached double-digit carries.
McFadden and Alfred Morris, who signed a two-year deal in free agency, might have to battle each other to be the No. 2 guy if Elliott is as successful as the Cowboys think. Lance Dunbar is recovering from a significant knee injury and is likely to open the season on the physically unable to perform list.
Having too many running backs isn’t necessarily a bad thing because of the pounding they take during a season. It is possible the Cowboys could find themselves in an envious position before the season starts, with a team perhaps wanting to make a low-cost deal for one of their veteran backs.
The Cowboys have months to work this out -- if something even needs to be worked out.
"We promote competition on our football team,” coach Jason Garrett said. “It's our job to try to bring the best players to our team. Everybody understands that. We make that abundantly clear. It's our job to make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. To have a guy like Zeke Elliott available, we think that helps our team. To have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris and Lance Dunbar and the other guys, it's a really healthy running back room.”
Just don’t expect a committee approach if Elliott is everything the Cowboys think he is.