4 players will compete for the Cowboys 3rd running back position

Around the Dallas Cowboys universe, there has been a good debate as to who should be the lead dog in the Cowboys backfield. Some will say Ezekiel Elliott is the lead back, and others will say Tony Pollard should be the lead back. What is for certain is that, barring an injury, Elliott and Pollard are locked in as the top two running backs for the 2022 NFL season. Behind them the answer is less clear, and to be frank, unproven. That does not mean the cupboard is bare, it simply means those players haven’t had a real opportunity to show the world what they bring to the table at the NFL level. Vying for the third running back slot on this year’s team, there are four players that appear to be in contention for that role.

Rico Dowdle

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As a rookie in 2020, Dowdle appeared in 15 games, primarily on special teams. From a statistical perspective, he didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet, as he only carried the ball seven times for a total of 24 yards. Where he flashed his ability in a limited capacity was in the return game. His signature highlight of his young career was on a 64-yard kick return against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

As you can see on that return, Dowdle shows good burst and very nearly took it the distance. For a guy who is six feet tall and 215 pounds, a 4.54 40 time is very solid. He very much has an NFL body. Prior to joining the Cowboys, Dowdle played his college ball at South Carolina and arguably faced the best competition in the college game week after week playing in the SEC. That competition didn’t phase him one bit as he averaged over five yards a carry. Aside from his speed, Dowdle is a very physical runner who tends to fall forward when the defense initiates contact.

What can get him in trouble at times is ball security as well as being suspect in pass protection. If it wasn’t for his hip fracture prior to the 2021 season, and most recently a knee scope, this competition might not be as highly contested.

Here are some of his college highlights

Ja Quan Hardy

Hardy is a 2021 Hard Knocks favorite and Division II standout from Tiffin College.

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Although Hardy hails from a Division II program, he has the size and speed to compete at the NFL level. He is 5’10” and weighs 225 pounds and also runs a 4.56 40 yard dash. In college, he was dominant and scored 31 total touchdowns in just 33 games. In his final year at Tiffin he rushed for 1554 yards on just 204 carries, that’s an average of 7.6 yards a touch. If a Division II-level player wants to get any looks at the pro level, that is the kind of stat line you must have. You have to literally dominate your opponent every chance you get.

Coming into the 2021 season, the Cowboys were on HBO’s Hard Knocks series. From that series, many people got their first look at Hardy and by the shows end he was a fan favorite. TV show aside, Hardy did get his chance in the NFL by appearing in three games his rookie year. As seen in this highlight, Hardy made the most of his opportunity against the Philadelphia Eagles. Aside from this highlight, Hardy did most of his work on special teams as he appeared in 66% of the special teams’ snaps in three games played.

From his tape in college and early on in his NFL journey, he shows good burst, but appears to be more quick than straight-line fast. He is also very shifty as well. Like Dowdle, Hardy also has that tendency to put the ball on the ground more than you would like and isn’t much of a pass-catching threat either.

Malik Davis

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Davis was a five-year player at Florida who played many roles for the Gators. In his career he carried the ball 284 times and gained 1,470 yards which is an average of 5.2 yards a carry. Not only did he carry the mail, but he also became active in the passing game during his final two seasons. In those two seasons he caught 54 balls for 594 yards. In addition to running and catching the ball, Davis had 14 returns for a total of 319 yards which was an average of 22.8 yards per return, primarily in his final year. He totaled 10 touchdowns in his college career.

When watching the film of Davis shows a multi-tooled player who can fill out many roles on a football team.

When running the ball from the backfield, he is very much a north and south type of runner. In the pass game, he has good hands and is a good outlet for a quarterback who is under pressure. Speaking of pressure when needed, Davis is very capable in pass protection. What could give him problems at the next level is the lack of athleticism, as he runs a 4.66 40 yard dash and isn’t very elusive. Davis seems to know his limitations and understands what he can and cannot do which is very important if he wants to make it in the pros.

Aaron Shampklin

Shampklin was a 2021 unanimous first-team All-Ivy League running back.

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Most people know Harvard for what it is – a very prestigious university where the academic requirements are extremely rigorous. In this case, the Crimson also had a very talented running back whose would catch the attention of the pro scouts and the sports media world as seen from a fairly recent article.

James Robinson Award: Aaron Shampklin, RB, Harvard

Most likely to be the next surprisingly good undrafted free agent running back

Trapasso: Shampklin averaged nearly 6.0 yards per carry on 323 career carries with the Crimson, and his bounce is apparent on every handoff. He runs with outstanding vision, one-cut skill when needed and the ability to make multiple defenders miss before pushing the throttle forward down the field. At a little over 5-9 and 194 pounds at the Harvard Pro Day, Shampklin ran 4.48 with a 37.5-inch vertical. He’s got juice.

While in college, Shampklin scored 26 total touchdowns in just 29 games. In addition to his touchdown totals, he also had an average yards per carry of 5.6, which for someone who carried the ball 402 times in his college career is pretty impressive.

Speaking of impressive, Shampklin is saying all the right things and wants to do everything he can to help win football games.

“I am willing to do anything to help better the team, whether it’s rushing for 100+ yards per game, catching balls, returning kicks, or even making tackles on special teams,” he added. “I am willing to play whatever position necessary to positively contribute to a team so we can strive towards winning a Super Bowl.”

While watching his highlights, you can see right away that he is literally and figuratively a step ahead of other players at this level. His game not only translates to the power five schools in college football, but more importantly, the NFL as well. Running a 4.48 40 yard dash he much more speed than your average FCS-caliber players. In addition to his speed, he showed good hands in the pass game. He is a very patient runner who waits for his blocks to be set up.

What might hinder him going from the FCS level to the NFL level is his strength. In college, he was simply the fastest player on the field and could just blow by anyone. When he wasn’t able to outrun his opponent, he got brought down much easier than you would like which makes sense because he isn’t exactly a big guy, as he stands 5’10” and weighs 195 pounds. A year on the practice squad to add bulk would be ideal because he has the athleticism, but is just a tad undersized at the moment.

Shampklin was part of a tremendous duo for Harvard:

Each one of these players brings a different element to the game. How they all perform in training camp and the preseason will tell us which player makes the roster as the third running back. The question is which one of these guys sticks around?

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