By Alex Kurpeski
Remember the days when Ezekiel Elliott was the most dominating running back in the NFL? I certainly do. It wasn’t too long ago that Elliott was plowing through defenses in the same manner as Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb, striking fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators across the league.
Unfortunately, the version of Elliott that we’ve seen in 2020 more closely resembles the archetypal aging veteran back, a guy who has very little gas left in the engine. With seven fumbles this season, Elliott has continued to betray the trust of both his fantasy managers and his own coaching staff. Yet as Elliott has struggled, a new star has emerged, in the form of second-year back Tony Pollard. While Dallas’s season has been disappointing, Pollard has given them something to look forward to in 2021.
A fourth-round selection out of Memphis in the 2019 NFL Draft, Pollard’s ascension was completed this past weekend, as he started his first career NFL game with Elliott out due to a “calf injury”. Facing a rather stout 49ers defense, Pollard looked like the best back on the Cowboys roster by a wide margin, tallying 132 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 18 touches (12 carries, 6 receptions).
At 6’0, 216 lbs, Pollard is a bigger back with plenty of burst. His soft hands and versatility to split out wide as a receiver lead me to believe that he could be an incredible three-down back if Dallas finds a way to offload Elliott’s contract this offseason. While that’s a massive “if”, Pollard’s performance this week against the Eagles will be a good indicator of his role moving forward. Assuming Elliott is inactive once again, Pollard could assert himself as the Cowboys RB1 with another big game, while also serving as a “league-winner” for many fantasy teams.
I’ve been a huge fan of Pollard’s since his days at Memphis. A native of Memphis, Tennessee, he chose to stay close to home when choosing schools as a three-star recruit. Pollard’s college career was fairly similar to that of Antonio Gibson, as Pollard — like Gibson — was mostly utilized as a wide receiver by the Tigers, with Darrell Henderson serving as the lead back. In his college career, Pollard was a swiss army knife, tallying 4,000+ scrimmage yards and over 100 receptions. While he’s not quite the athlete that Gibson is, he’s no slouch in this department as evidenced by his workout metrics, brought to us by PlayerProfiler.
For context, Pollard’s high college dominator rate and YPC are boosted by his multi-positional usage. While both are impressive, they’re also a bit misleading. What is not misleading is his scores in all of the athletic areas, with no workout metric lower than the 52nd percentile except bench press. An all-around athlete, Pollard caught the Cowboys’ eye with his versatility first and foremost, and his solid combine stats only backed up what the scouts saw on tape. While Henderson was the higher-profile prospect of the two, it’s Pollard who may be the better player when all is said and done.
What I saw from Pollard’s tape at Memphis has translated well to the NFL. He’s a very smart player who uses every bit of athletic skill afforded to him at maximum capacity. This is evidenced by the fact that he currently ranks 7th among qualified rushers with a breakaway run rate of 5.7% and 12th among the same group with a juke rate of 27.9%. Pollard also grades out well in the area of production premium (13th with an 11.8 score) used to measure a player’s effectiveness in league average situations. With the ninth-best mark in the area of yards created per-touch (1.76), the advanced metrics help to drive us to an easy evaluation of Pollard — he’s a tremendous playmaker.
Tony Pollard since 2019:
4th in PFF rushing grade (89.8)
1st in YAC per attempt (4.2)
1st in forced missed tackles per attempt (0.25) pic.twitter.com/s9AVkFl5mJ
— PFF (@PFF) December 21, 2020
Here’s a great example of Pollard’s vision and shake. This long touchdown run essentially iced the game for Dallas. Pollard does a great job of cutting outside and somehow eluding three would-be tacklers on this dash. He does a great job of staying balanced and upright while also making a quick read once he’d handed the ball. If Pollard can continue to string runs like this one together, he could be a very dangerous weapon for this offense. Pollard has four 20+ yardage runs this season, two more than Elliott while seeing 124 fewer touches. Now that’s food for thought.
— NFL (@NFL) December 20, 2020
On this reception, we get a nice glimpse into Pollard’s background as a receiver. He runs a perfectly executed screen route and demonstrates excellent burst once he secures the ball. Plays like this one are scarily reminiscent of what we’ve seen from guys like Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.
— Dallas Cowboys Collaboration (@mailman_phil) December 20, 2020
Pollard’s receiving ability is somehow underrated. He runs some high-quality routes and demonstrates some elite footwork. On a team that features Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup, it’s possible that Pollard is the hardest pass-catcher for teams to cover one-on-one.
Poor Richard Sherman. He couldn't handle Tony Pollard in space yesterday. pic.twitter.com/8csZfSOQcU
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) December 21, 2020
Pollard is a must-start this week in any league, but more importantly, he’s a must-have in dynasty leagues. Don’t be afraid to overpay for him, as his day will come sooner rather than later.