Ezekiel Elliott headlines strong Cowboys running back group

With the Dallas Cowboys set to open training camp practices Saturday, here is the latest in a position-by-position look at their roster:


Returning players: Darren McFadden, Lance Dunbar, Rod Smith, Keith Smith

Gone from last season: Robert Turbin, Tyler Clutts

New this season: Ezekiel Elliott (first-round pick), Alfred Morris (unrestricted free agent), Darius Jackson (sixth-round pick)

Position coach: Gary Brown (fourth year as Cowboys running backs coach)

Biggest issue: The Cowboys want to get back to the formula that worked so well in 2014 when DeMarco Murray led the NFL in rushing with 1,845 yards. They drafted Elliott fourth overall to be the lead back but have two other backs who can handle big workloads. In order to maximize -- or justify -- the selection of a running back that high, Elliott has to get a lot of work. Can they keep McFadden and Morris happy? In his two years as offensive coordinator, Scott Linehan has relied mostly on one back to carry the load. First it was Murray, and last year, after Joseph Randle fell apart, it was McFadden.

Player to watch: How is it not Elliott? He has a lot of people excited about the potential of the running game and the affect it will have on QB Tony Romo and the passing game. In the spring, Elliott showed the ability to hit the hole quickly and make solid reads. He can also be effective as a receiver out of the backfield. At Ohio State he showed the ability to get into the end zone. That’s what the Cowboys need in short-yardage situations, along with big plays. The expectations for Elliott, however, might be outsize at this point. If Elliott runs for 1,200 yards, it would be a team rookie record, but the fear is that some might view it as a disappointment. Allegations of a domestic violence incident last week involving Elliot put something of a cloud over him at camp, but he has the backing of the team.

Medical report: McFadden will not be ready at the start of training camp because of a broken elbow he suffered in the spring. A definitive timetable has not been set, but he could be back by the end of camp. Dunbar has progressed quicker than expected from a torn anterior cruciate ligament and patellar tendon suffered last season. He is expected to open camp on the physically unable to perform list, but he could be ready, if not for Week 1, then a few weeks later.

Play it out: This is the deepest the Cowboys have been at tailback in some time. Elliott should get the bulk of the work, leaving Morris and McFadden as role players. McFadden had 1,089 yards last year. Morris ran for more than 1,000 yards in three of his first four seasons. Even Jackson has shown some ability that could make it difficult for him to be placed on the practice squad. The Cowboys could keep four tailbacks and go without a fullback if Dunbar does not start the season on PUP. Keeping a fifth runner would of course force them to go lighter at another position.

Notable number: 39.7 percent. After running the ball an NFL-high 48.2 percent of snaps in 2014, the Cowboys’ percentage of running plays dropped to 39.7 percent last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Cowboys averaged a respectable 118.1 yards per game on the ground last year, but that was well off the pace set in 2014 when they averaged 147.1 yards a game.

Quote board: "I would hate to overstate anything at this point, but he is a full-package running back. There is really not a time I would feel uncomfortable with him being in the game right now, which is unusual for a rookie. Over my years I have had some really good running backs. But there were certain areas of the game where you would say if we do this, that is not his cup of tea. But I think Zeke is well-rounded. I don't think there is ever a down or distance or situation where he can't carry the load. Obviously, we have other guys who are going to do it, but we will lean heavily on this young kid." -- Linehan on Elliott.

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