Pro Bowl voting has been underway for some time now, and it closes...*checks notes*... TOMORROW NIGHT! Well, I hope you all voted your hearts out while you still had an opportunity. If you haven’t though, you might want to throw your two cents into the Pro Bowl fountain if you’d like to see your favorite players and teams represented.
However, if you’re sitting on that running back selection screen and have selected four or five but just can’t quite decide who to choose for your final two spots, let me make a suggestion for you: Dallas Cowboys’ backup halfback Tony Pollard.
Sure, unless you have a vendetta against one of the guys I’m about to list, you’re going to put Jonathan Taylor, Joe Mixon, Dalvin Cook, and Nick Chubb on your ballots. That leaves two spots up for grabs. If you play fantasy football, you might immediately fill those slots with James Conner and Austin Ekeler simply because of the number of touchdowns both players have accumulated over the course of the season. Touchdowns are great and all, but they’re not really indicative of greatness, rather opportunity. Take James Conner. He has the second-most rushing attempts from inside the 5-yard line (14 — Jonathan Taylor has 23 attempts). Nine of Conner’s 14 rushing touchdowns on the year have come from inside the five. That’s the highest percentage of any running back with at least seven rushing touchdowns. 11 of his touchdowns have come from inside the 10-yard line and all of them have come from inside the 20. That’s a high percentage. Despite the touchdowns, Conner is actually near the bottom of the league in terms of yards per carry. Of all halfbacks in the NFL with at least 150 carries this season, Conner has the second-lowest yards per carry total (3.7). Only Miami’s Myles Gaskin has fewer (3.4).
All this goes to say that there is more than a handful of running backs you could make an argument for to earn your final Pro Bowl vote, and Ezekiel Elliott is most likely a fringe Pro Bowl running back in 2021 as is, but why would you waste your vote on Zeke when it could be spent on Pollard? The man isn’t even the starting running back on his own team, but he’s definitely been the best one.
Sure, Pollard’s touchdown numbers aren’t as grand as Conner or Ekeler or even Zeke, but Pollard has had pretty much zero opportunity to bust into the endzone. Pollard has had only one carry from inside the five-yard line this season. That ties him for 90th in the league, behind the likes of Cam Newton, who’s only played in four games this year. It’s fewer than Jeff Wilson Jr. who’s played in only five games all year and is his team’s fourth-string running back. It’s fewer than Sam Darnold, Derrick Gore, Larry Rountree, and...holy smokes...Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr. With 107 carries on the season, Pollard is the second-most heavily-used running back in the NFL with one or fewer touches inside the 5-yard line (MIN Alexander Mattison - 116). However, Mattison has had the privilege of being his team’s feature back in three games. Pollard has never had that opportunity.
Among all qualified running backs, Pollard is second in yards per carry (5.6), trailing only Jonathan Taylor. Pollard is above Nick Chubb and Dalvin Cook in that category. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, well of course his yards per carry is going to be high, he’s the change-of-pace back meaning more often than not, his legs will be fresh when he is given carries. Sure, that might be the case, but it doesn’t explain why Pollard is leaps and bounds ahead of other great change-of-pace backs in yards per carry like Javonte Williams (4.8), AJ Dillon (4.3), Rhamondre Stevenson (4.3), and Jamaal Williams (4.2). Aside from Javonte Williams, Pollard has more carries than each of these guys as well.
Compare those numbers to Zeke now. Elliott has averaged 4.4 yards per carry on the season. Albeit, Derrick Henry had an average of just 4.3 before going down with injury, but this is a comparison between two running backs on the exact same team. That means both Elliott and Pollard are running behind the same offensive line all the time. Yes, Pollard’s legs are probably fresher more often, but Pollard’s mark of 5.6 is still greater than Elliott’s career figures in the first quarter of games (4.4) by a wide margin. The first quarter should be when Elliott’s legs are freshest, but his numbers are still far off from Pollard’s.
Not to mention, Zeke has been incredibly ineffective as a power runner this season. In situations where the Cowboys have 1-3 yards to go before the first down marker, Elliott is averaging 2.8 yards per carry on 36 attempts. His ineffectiveness in these scenarios is likely a big reason why the Cowboys’ offensive line ranks 21st in power success percentage while ranking second in total adjusted line yards. That’s not a normal discrepancy, and Elliott’s inability to push forward in short yardage situations is likely the culprit.
Pollard leads Elliott in first downs per carry, despite having a higher percentage of carries come on first and second down. Pollard leads Elliott in runs of 20-plus yards. He has a much higher percentage of explosive runs. In almost every aspect of his game, aside from pass blocking, Pollard has been superior to Elliott this season.
There are factors that play into this like freshness, which I’ve already gotten into, and game situation, but all in all, the Cowboys’ backfield situation is looking more and more like the 2019 Chargers’ backfield situation by the day. Melvin Gordon was the starter for the Chargers, but was consistently outshined by the change-of-pace back Austin Ekeler. Now, just two years later, Ekeler is considered one of the best all-around backs in the NFL. Give it a few years and barring a resurgence from Zeke and/or a lack of opportunities being given to Pollard, Pollard will likely find himself in the same boat. He may not be as flashy a pick as Elliott, Conner, Ekeler, or Fournette, but if you’re feeling wild while voting for the Pro Bowl tonight or tomorrow, give Pollard a chance. He’s definitely deserved it more than Zeke.