There are still plenty of questions surrounding Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension that the league handed down last week; will he really serve six games? Even if he does have to serve a suspension, will court proceedings prevent that from happening until 2018?
Chief among these concerns is who will be Elliott’s replacement while he misses time? The Cowboys have to approach the season as if they won’t have Elliott until the last weekend in October against Washington.
Here is a look at the four candidates vying to replace Elliott during his absence.
McFadden enters his 10th year in the NFL having never started 16 games, and only playing in a full 16 twice. He’ll also be turning 30 in less than two weeks.
Injury-prone runners over the age of 27 don’t seem like ideal candidates to carry the workload, but McFadden does have some quality attributes.
He rushed for 1,089 yards in just 10 starts. McFadden became just the fifth back in the last 40 years to finish top five in rushing yards with 10 or fewer starts. He also showed he still has good burst, rushing for 446 on 60 carries (7.4 yards per carry) on runs outside the tackles.
McFadden’s greatest attribute as a stand-in for Elliott may have nothing to do with running the ball. He is a good receiver, and an even better blocker. Those are two things Dallas greatly benefited from with Elliott in 2016, and the drop-off would not be very steep with McFadden.
Morris has the resume most befitting a workhorse back on the roster.
A two-time Pro Bowler with the Redskins in 2013 and 2014, Morris averaged 1,320 yards and nine touchdowns over his first three seasons. During that same time period, he averaged 292 carries. Morris has just 154 fewer career carries than McFadden, despite playing in four fewer seasons.
Morris does have his warts, however. Over his last 46 games, Morris is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry. That average is the worst in the NFL for any running back with as many carries as Morris in that time.
Morris may be a better option for controlling the clock, but his presence completely eliminates the big play threat in the backfield.
The brother of Jaylon Smith, Rod possesses the freshest legs of any serious option Dallas might consider. He just turned 23 in February and has carried the ball two times in his career.
He’s a smart, patient runner who would jibe nicely with Dallas’ affinity for zone-blocking concepts. As a former fullback, his 6’3, 231 pound frame presents bruiser potential, and he doesn’t lack in the area of blocking.
His problem is similar to Morris’ in that there is no real home run potential with Smith in the backfield. But the coaches seem to like him, and there has been a lot of buzz about his performance thus far in training camp.
Reports insisted that Hillman wasn’t brought in by the Cowboys as suspension insurance for Elliott, yet here we are.
Hillman is a major dark horse, as his name has barely come up, even with Elliott’s suspension. He’s had an uninspiring preseason to this point with seven carries and a pitiful six yards. Those numbers, to be fair, were with blockers who will not be on NFL rosters come September.
Despite his lack of numbers, Hillman has good tools. A former third round pick of the Broncos in 2012, Hillman possesses 4.4 speed, and averages 4.0 yards per carry over 56 career games. He’s just two years removed from over 800 rushing yards and seven touchdowns with the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos.