Cowboys all about Ezekiel Elliott, but running back position still a need

FRISCO, Texas -- As much as "change" has been a buzzword around the Dallas Cowboys' offense this offseason, don't get too carried away.

The Cowboys' offense in 2019 will still be about Ezekiel Elliott.

Kellen Moore has the keys to the unit as the new coordinator. Jon Kitna has been brought in to help Dak Prescott's fundamentals. Marc Colombo has full control of the running game as the offensive line coach from the get-go.

But how Elliott goes is how the Cowboys will go.

Elliott has two rushing titles in his three seasons, winning his second title in 2018 with 1,434 yards on 304 carries.

Since 2016, Elliott has 4,048 rushing yards, the most in the NFL, and he missed six games in 2017 because of a suspension. He has reached his yardage total in 40 games. Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams is second in rushing yards since 2016 with 3,441 yards. He has played in 45 games. Jordan Howard of the Chicago Bears is third with 3,370 yards in 47 games.

Last season, Elliott caught a career-high 77 passes for 567 yards and three touchdowns. He had 58 catches for 632 yards and three scores in his first two seasons. He averaged 22.4 touches per game.

In 2014, DeMarco Murray had a franchise-record 392 carries for a league-high 1,845 yards. He also caught 57 passes for 416 yards. He averaged 26.4 touches per game.

Murray was 26 years old that season, and the Cowboys made a half-hearted attempt to re-sign him before he cashed in with the Philadelphia Eagles with a five-year, $42 million deal.

Elliott will turn 24 in July. He has 868 carries in three seasons. Murray had 934 in his four seasons with the Cowboys.

Some believe that is why you don't draft a running back high or pay a running back a lot in free agency, but the former scenario is over and the latter could happen this summer or later.

If the Cowboys used the fourth pick in the 2016 draft to only get five years out of Elliott, then they made a poor decision from the start. Top-10 picks should be generational picks who last well into a second contract.

The Cowboys had some discussions with Elliott's representatives, but he is not high on the pecking order just yet with the team trying to retain defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper.

"We've got it budgeted that we're going to pay Zeke a significant contract at some point," executive vice president Stephen Jones said at the combine. "He's right at the top of the best in the business, if not the best. And we certainly saw what Gurley got paid and we know that's probably where it starts, and we'll go from there."

Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million extension last year, with $45 million guaranteed.

At some point, the Cowboys have to be mindful of the work they are giving Elliott -- even if he has not missed a game because of injury in his career -- in order to get the most bang for their buck.

"Well, Zeke's a great football player and good things happen when he has the ball in his hands, but we understand the pounding that he takes," Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. "He's a focal point of every defense that we play against. We like to hand him the ball; we like to throw him the ball. Again, a lot of positive things happen for our team when we do that.

"But we recognize the workload, and we just have to make sure that we have good alternatives to that going forward, whether it's in-house or somewhere else."

In 2017, Rod Smith was a good alternative to Elliott in small doses. He had 55 carries for 232 yards and four touchdowns to go along with 19 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown. In 2018, Smith carried 44 times for 127 yards and a touchdown and caught nine passes for 60 yards.

Smith is set to be a free agent, but the only other tailbacks on the roster not named Elliott are Darius Jackson and Jordan Chunn.

Signing a quality running back in free agency will be difficult. Why would a running back willingly come to Dallas knowing Elliott is going to get as much work as he is going to get?

The Cleveland Browns have reportedly made Duke Johnson available, and the Cowboys would have some interest at the right trade price. Johnson has proved to be a good third-down back and has shown flashes as a runner. If something were to happen to Elliott, Johnson could be a decent fill in.

The draft is the most likely scenario to pick up a running back, and there will be options available on the third day that could pique interest.

"I don't know that it would be early," Jones said, "but I do think as you move through the draft, if we see a back we really like, certainly we'll take a look at that."