Second in an eight-part series examining the Cowboys’ free-agent needs.
The Cowboys have arguably the league’s top running back in Ezekiel Elliott, so they have more pressing needs in free agency than adding another tailback.
However, veteran Alfred Morris becomes an unrestricted free agent, and that will open a hole on the roster.
The Cowboys are big believers in running back Rod Smith, so he could step into more of the backup role in 2018 without Dallas missing much.
Smith averaged 4.2 rushing yards and 10.6 yards a catch last season in limited action. Smith was also a key special teams contributor, finishing tied for seventh on the team with five tackles.
Having a reliable option at backup running back is key considering Elliott’s unpredictable ways off the field. Elliott was suspended for six games in 2017 for his involvement with domestic violence allegations.
Morris filled in well for Elliott during his suspension — averaging 4.3 yards per carry — but would like another opportunity to be a full-time starter in the league after leading the Redskins’ ground game the first four years of his career.
Position need: 3 out of 5 stars
On the roster
Player Age Years left Ezekiel Elliott 22 2 (plus a club option in 2020) Alfred Morris 29 0 (unrestricted FA) Keith Smith 25 0 (restricted FA) Rod Smith 26 1 Trey Williams 25 2
Rex Burkhead checks all the boxes for a backup running back.
Burkhead has been a standout special teams player throughout his five-year career. Ideally, NFL teams want their backup running back to play a lot on special teams. Alfred Morris didn’t do that during his two seasons in Dallas.
Burkhead also produced when called upon in the rushing game. He has a career rushing average of 4.2 yards and his versatility is a strength. He set a career high in his first season in New England with five rushing touchdowns and 30 catches for 254 yards and three more touchdowns.
And, he’s homegrown. Burkhead, who turns 28 in July, enjoyed a standout prep career at Plano before he signed with Nebraska.
Jeremy Hill, Bengals (6-1, 230)
Jeremy Hill appears ready to move on from the Bengals. He tweeted last month “on to the next chapter.”
Hill just finished his fourth season in Cincinnati but had to undergo ankle surgery after starting the first seven games.
Hill to the Cowboys makes more sense now after Dallas hired former longtime Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander.
Hill, who turns 26 in October, has started 43 of the 54 games in his career. He had a standout rookie season for the Bengals, rushing for 1,124 yards and nine touchdowns. Hill rushed for 29 touchdowns over his first three seasons but didn’t score in his abbreviated 2017.
Orleans Darkwa, Giants (5-11, 291)
Darkwa enjoyed a career season for the Giants last season, starting 11 games and rushing for 751 yards and five touchdowns. He also caught 19 passes for 116 yards.
He’s averaged 4.2 yards over his four-year career but is better suited for a backup role.
Darkwa, who turns 26 later this month, had two 100-yard rushing games for the Giants in 2017. He can also contribute on special teams.
Alfred Morris, Cowboys (5-10, 222)
After a mysterious exit in Washington, Alfred Morris proved to be a great fit with the Cowboys. He gave Dallas a reliable backup running back option and was a strong locker room presence.
Perhaps the Cowboys bring him back for another run. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry last season and rushed for 547 yards.
Morris filled in well — for the most part — for Cowboys starter Ezekiel Elliott during the six-game suspension in 2017. Morris averaged 4.3 yards per attempt.
After four seasons with the Redskins, Morris signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal with the Cowboys in 2016.
Lance Dunbar, Rams (5-8, 187)
The Cowboys didn’t make much effort to retain Lance Dunbar last offseason, but perhaps they make another run at him this time around in free agency.
Dunbar spent his first five seasons with the Cowboys before leaving last year for the Los Angeles Rams on a one-year, $1.5 million deal.
But 2017 proved to be a lost season for Dunbar, who began the year on the physically unable to perform list because of a knee injury. He wasn’t activated off the PUP list until Nov. 11. He finished with only 51 rushing yards on 11 carries in four games with the Rams to end 2017.
Dunbar, however, would give the Cowboys a passing threat out of the backfield. Over his last three seasons with Dallas, Dunbar caught a combined 55 passes for 554 yards. He’s also a local product, having attended Haltom High School and played in college at North Texas.
The Cowboys could use a veteran reserve running back who could be a key contributor on special teams. But don’t expect them to spend much money trying to land one.
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