Sunday, May 28 2023

So, you want a new running back but you’re not dying to spend a first-round pick on the position.

That should summarize the biggest debate of this Cowboys offseason — the need for talent in the backfield against the value of the NFL’s most polarizing position. The football gods have conspired to make it as fun a debate as possible. The Cowboys were just forced to cut one of their best-ever running backs, a former top-five pick, for underperforming relative to his mammoth contract. In the exact same year, Bijan Robinson is entering the NFL as the best running back prospect in at least five years.

It’s a content maker’s dream — take it from me. Even with Brandin Cooks added to the mix, the Cowboys have an undeniable need for juice on their offense, and Tony Pollard is recovering from multiple injuries. But at the same time, they just faced a harsh truth about the shelf life of the running back position.

They are going to draft one, don’t get it twisted. Even when Pollard is healthy, his $10 million franchise tag is for just one year. Fellow veteran Ronald Jones is also playing on a one-year deal. It’d do wonders for the long-term direction of the position to add a talented back on an affordable four-year contract.

If that wasn’t enough, we can always count on the team’s decision-makers to outline their thought process. Asked about it this week at the NFL’s owners meetings, chief operating officer Stephen Jones did so. “In a perfect world, you’d find a big, physical back that can complement Tony,” he said.

[Related: 2023 NFL Draft RB rankings and scouting reports]

Maybe that’s obvious, but it’s interesting to hear Jones say it. Clearly, the Cowboys would like to replace Elliott’s role as the hammer of their backfield. Where do they find him?


It’s understood Robinson fits that bill if he falls that far. But if we can assume for a second that Robinson isn’t the pick, what are some other options? 

An important note: for the purpose of this, I’m looking for running backs that fit the “big, physical” description. Nothing against Jahmyr Gibbs, Devon Achane, Eric Gray or Tyjae Spears, all of whom are great players. I’m simply looking at mostly bigger backs.

Bijan Robinson is the perfect fit for Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys offense

Joel Klatt explains why former Texas Longhorns RB Bijan Robinson is the perfect fit for the Dallas Cowboys.

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA 

You’re starting to see this name often, and the reasoning is obvious. Charbonnet doesn’t have the natural talent to be a first-round pick, but you cannot argue with his body of work.

In a world with few true bellcows, Charbonnet tallied 400 carries for the Bruins these last two years. He touched the ball at least 23 times in eight of his 10 appearances last year. He’s not the fastest guy, but he’s big and physical with some fantastic balance. The way he creates extra yards after contact is impressive. He’s also plenty useful as a receiver, with 37 catches last year.

He fits the physical profile, he’s proven he can handle quite a workload and he averaged seven yards when he touched the ball last season. It’s easy to understand why the Cowboys, or any other team, would be excited to draft him in the second round. 

Zach Charbonnet bulldozes his way into UCLA’s first TD vs. Arizona

Zach Evans, Mississippi

It feels weird that a guy who ran for 936 yards in the SEC is flying so firmly under the radar. Maybe that’s because Evans transferred in from TCU and was still firmly second fiddle to true freshman Quinshon Judkins. It probably didn’t help that he strained his hamstring just before the NFL Combine, either.

Still, Evans is one of the most talented players in this class. He doesn’t have as big a frame as Robinson or Charbonnet, but 5-11, 202 looks plenty big when you watch him. He has enough speed for game breaking runs, and he finishes runs in punishing fashion, with good contact balance. I’m not convinced Evans is the most well-rounded guy you’re going to draft. There’s little evidence of him as a viable receiving option, and his pass protection needs work — as is the case with most rookie runners. Those things can be improved, though. Evans fits the description of bringing juice to the offense. 

Tank Bigsby, Auburn 

How could a guy nicknamed “Tank” not make this list? If we can tell one thing about Bigsby right off the rip, it’s that a 6-0, 210-pound running back with 524 career carries in the SEC qualifies as a physical dude.

Bigsby isn’t fancy, but that’s not a bad thing. He takes the rock, moves north and he usually hits the hell out of someone at the end of his run. He’s got surprisingly shifty feet for a guy his size. And while he clocked a 4.56-second time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, his Pro Day time was reportedly much better (an unofficial 4.45-second time) — if that sort of thing matters to you.

The most impressive thing about Bigsby might be that he was able to excel in a disaster of an Auburn offense. The Tigers‘ starting quarterback completed less than 50% of his passes last year, and there wasn’t a 500-yard receiver on the team. The offense was built entirely out of its running game, and Bigsby still managed to average 5.5 yards per touch for 1,150 all-purpose yards and 10 touchdowns.

If that’s what he can do in a mess, here’s guessing he’d produce nicely in an offense as potent as the Cowboys’.

Israel Abanikanda, Pittsburgh

This is another player who’s likely under the radar because he didn’t do much at the Combine. But that might be about to change, if his silly Pro Day numbers from Wednesday are any indication.

Abanikanda should be known to most college football fans, having tied for the lead in all FBS with 20 rushing touchdowns on the year. He ran for 100+ yards and scored at least once in nine of his 11 games.

We can all agree Pro Day times should be taken with a grain of salt, but his speed shows up on tape. More impressive than that is his ability to change direction, giving him a suddenness that’s tough to deal with.

Combine that type of ability with one of the bigger frames in this draft class, and it’s an enticing combination. Abanikanda took 239 carries in 2022, so he’s clearly durable. At the same time, he might be the most dangerous home-run hitter on this list so far.

DeWayne McBride, Alabama-Birmingham

A couple years ago, I’d have eliminated McBride from Cowboys consideration because of where he played his college ball. UAB belongs to the American Athletic Conference, and the Blazers only played one game against Power 5 competition last year.

The Cowboys have bucked their trend of only drafting from big-time programs, though. Just last year, they drafted Tyler Smith out of Tulsa and Jalen Tolbert out of South Alabama. Pollard came out of Memphis back in 2019.

Maybe McBride is next, having terrorized the AAC to the tune of 1,700 yards and 19 touchdowns. It’s a common theme in this list, but there’s fantastic contact balance to go with physicality and agility. I doubt he’s going to hit many home runs in the NFL, but the first guy to touch him is rarely the one to tackle him. If you’re looking for a complement to the speedy Pollard, that merits consideration. Maybe the biggest knock against him is that McBride didn’t play against a ton of top-flight competition. But he has done it, and done so well. In 2021, he was a lone bright spot in a 56-7 loss to eventual national champion Georgia. He also helped UAB upset a No. 13-ranked BYU team that featured Tyler Allgeier.

David Helman covers the Dallas Cowboys for FOX Sports. He previously spent nine seasons covering the Cowboys for the team’s official website. In 2018, he won a regional Emmy for his role in producing “Dak Prescott: A Family Reunion” about the quarterback’s time at Mississippi State. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhelman_.

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