The NFL is a grueling and violent game where injuries are promised, not just possible. Therefore, the backups on a roster typically play a major role in their team’s success in one way or another.
Additionally, the lines between starters and backups at some positions are becoming more and more blurry by the year as most teams have adopted some semblance of a rotation to keep their best players fresh for the fourth quarter and later in the season.
The Dallas Cowboys roster is blessed with a ton of talent, especially on offense, but you can bet that the performances of some key backups will go a long way toward determining the team’s successes moving forward.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few Cowboys reserves who should play a major role in 2020:
Tony Pollard, RB
Dak Prescott has some tremendous weapons at his disposal in the Cowboys offense, including Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, CeeDee Lamb and Blake Jarwin. However, it would be a shame if Tony Pollard doesn’t see an increased role in 2020 after proving to be a dynamic weapon in limited opportunities last season. If Pollard proved anything in 2019, it was that when the ball is in his hands, the Cowboys tend to prosper.
Overall, Pollard finished with 86 carries for 455 rushing yards and two touchdowns to go with 15 catches 107 receiving yards and another TD.
On its face, those numbers don’t seem terribly impressive but get a load of this — among RBs with at least 60 carries, Pollard finished first in yards after contact per attempt (4.51), third in yards per carry (5.3) and first again in elusive rating (116.1).
The fact of the matter is that in a league where RB-by-committee is en vogue, there wasn’t a backup RB who was as efficient and dynamic as Pollard was behind Elliott.
While Pollard’s elusiveness makes him a potential highlight every time he touches the ball, his incredible contact balance is the reason why he’s able to break tackles at a high rate. Pollard’s overall vision can still be fine-tuned, but he displays the patience to allow his blocks to develop and the necessary burst to hit the open running lane on time. Pollard is at his best on outside zone run plays where he can stretch a defense horizontally before putting his foot in the ground and bursting vertically through the available creases.
In the passing game, Pollard isn’t a refined route-runner, but his athleticism is enough to run away from and create separation against linebackers. Pollard is extremely effective when he can get the ball in space, making him dangerous on screens, touch passes and slants against off coverage.
Tony Pollard did well in pass protection earlier in the game, but this was pretty bad. Completely whiffs on the blitz pickup and prevents Dak from having the time to find the open receiver to pick up the 1st down. pic.twitter.com/VGtEiD9wFw
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) November 6, 2019
Pollard does need to become more consistent in pass protection, as he gave up three pressures on just nine pass-blocking snaps in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. He has a tendency to dip his head and drop his eyes on contact, which causes him to whiff on blocks where the defender makes a last-second adjustment (above clip). Luckily, Pollard has the mental side down, as he does a good job identifying free rushers and understands his responsibility under the team’s called pass protection.
Even though Elliott is a top-three RB, it’d be idiotic if the Cowboys did not increase Pollard’s role after his outstanding rookie campaign. The pathway toward optimizing Dallas’ output is one where Pollard receives eight-to-10 touches per game, meaning he would see 20-60 more touches than he did in 2019, which would be a boon for the Cowboys offense.
The good thing for the Cowboys is that Pollard’s versatile skill set enables the team to get Pollard the rock in a myriad of ways. Outside of his experience as a traditional running back, Pollard has also spent a ton of time playing wide receiver, as he played in a hybrid slot WR/RB role in college at Memphis.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if the Cowboys also experiment with some two-RB sets where Pollard aligns or motions out to the slot, where he can create some serious mismatches against slower-footed LBs and poor-tackling DBs. Additionally, Pollard can replace Tavon Austin’s role on jet sweeps, touch passes and bubble/tunnel screens as a means for the Cowboys to get Pollard the ball in creative ways.
All in all, Pollard’s role needs to evolve from just giving Elliott a breather into a definitive, creative and every-week role in the Cowboys offense. If there’s a backup who’s going to play a major role on the Cowboys offense, it’s Pollard without a shadow of a doubt.
Joe Thomas, LB
Today, NFL teams need their linebackers to be athletic and extremely capable in coverage. Gone are the days where the physical, downhill 250+ pounders rule the second level of NFL defenses, as they’ve been replaced by smaller, more diminutive linebackers who can play sideline-to-sideline and add value in coverage.
That’s why it’s so surprising that Cowboys LB Joe Thomas was unable to find a starting opportunity in free agency this offseason.
At 6-foot-1 and 232 pounds, Thomas is a well-rounded player who has experience playing all three LB spots (MIKE, SAM, WILL) in a 4-3 defense. In 2019, he finished with 33 tackles, a pass deflection and a forced fumble as a reserve LB on Dallas’ defense. Thomas’ biggest selling point is his coverage ability, as he displays the requisite athleticism and technique to add value in that area. Here’s a great example:
Great job by Joe Thomas to pick up and match the TE coming into his zone here. He’s such a smooth athlete that it’s understandable why DAL likes to use him in passing situations. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/Egpv30gZpY
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) September 27, 2019
On this play, the Cowboys are in their nickel defense (four DL, two LBs, five DBs) with Thomas and Leighton Vander Esch as the two LBs. Thomas is in a tough spot here because he has dual run/pass responsibilities.
Given that each of those responsibilities requires Thomas to move in opposite directions, it’s easy to see the kind of pickle LBs are forced to deal with on a play-by-play basis, which is why football intelligence is so important at the LB position.
But back to Thomas. The Dolphins do an excellent job of selling the run action by pulling the left guard across the formation, which forces Thomas to step forward to honor his run responsibility. However, at that exact same time, the tight end — who is on the edge of Thomas’ periphery vision — releases off the line into his route, which is designed to take advantage of the space vacated by Thomas honoring his run responsibility.
Nevertheless, Thomas had other plans, as he somehow identified the play-action quickly enough for him to turn, pick up and match, also known as “roboting,” the tight end’s route. Notice how Josh Rosen’s eyes immediately look to the tight end after the run-action; however, there’s nothing available because of Thomas’ blanket coverage.
It doesn’t get much better than that on a non-targeted play.
Against the run, Thomas struggles mightily to get off blocks but he displays an ability to avoid blockers while pursuing the ball carrier. Instead of the classic stack-and-shed techniques to take on and defeat blocks inside the box, Thomas chooses to use athleticism to beat blockers to the spot or avoid their blocks altogether on his way toward the ball carrier.
On top of his ability on defense, Thomas has also been one of Dallas’ most effective special-teamers since joining the squad in 2018. In 2019, Thomas played 51% of Dallas special teams snaps — fourth-most on the team, per PFF.
Fortunately, the rest of the NFL’s loss is the Cowboys’ gain, as they were able to retain Thomas on a cheap one-year deal to provide quality LB depth and special teams ability.
Given the injury histories of Vander Esch, Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee, it’s important that the Cowboys have effective reserve LBs because, more than likely, they are going to be forced into playing a lot of snaps throughout the season. Despite being fourth on Dallas’ LB totem pole last year, Thomas still played 23% of the defensive snaps in 2019.
Even though they didn’t play like it last season, the Cowboys have one of the most talented LB units in the NFL, as all three starters deserve to be considered “good” players by current league standards. Luckily for them, Thomas’ presence means the drop off between the starters and backups isn’t dire, as was the case when Sean Lee missed time in 2017.
Whether it be on special teams or in replace of a starter at LB, expect Thomas to play a relatively big role for the Cowboys in 2020.
Neville Gallimore, DT
In all honesty, the Cowboys have a few rookies who could play a major role as a backup for the Cowboys in 2020.
Second-rounder Trevon Diggs probably has the best chance to play a major role as a backup. However, given that he has a very real chance of earning a starting gig, especially if Chidobe Awuzie transitions to safety, including Diggs on this list felt like cheating.
Reserve offensive linemen typically don’t play a huge role unless there are injuries in front of them, but fourth-rounder Tyler Biadasz could play a big factor as a backup to all three interior offensive line spots; yet, just like Diggs, Biadasz has a shot to start, so it felt disingenuous including him on this list.
Fifth-rounder Bradlee Anae doesn’t have a path to start and does possess the kind of skill set that could lead to immediate production in a reserve role. Unfortunately for Anae, there may not be enough opportunities for him to make a meaningful impact, as Dallas actually has nice depth on the edge, especially when/if Aldon Smith and Randy Gregory are reinstated.
This leaves third-rounder Neville Gallimore, who should serve as Gerald McCoy’s primary backup as a three-technique defensive tackle. Though new defensive line coach Jim Tomsula doesn’t adhere to the same “waves” philosophy in rotating defensive linemen as Rod Marinelli did, Gallimore will see plenty of action as long as he’s able to beat out Trysten Hill in camp as expected.
Fortunately for Gallimore and the Cowboys, his skill set is at a point where it’s best utilized in a reserve role. Gallimore has serious issues in terms of pad level and changing direction, which can be easy to take advantage of if Gallimore is playing the majority of snaps. In a reserve role, it will make it easier for the Cowboys to exacerbate Gallimore’s strengths and hide his weaknesses as he develops throughout his rookie year.
Plays like these are what make Gallimore so intriguing. 3T with a 1v1 vs the LG. Explodes vertically out of his stance then executes and outside jab into a heavy club arm-over to win quick and pressure the QB. #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/TJ5UOntVZw
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) April 25, 2020
The key for the Cowboys will be limiting Gallimore’s exposure to double teams, as Gallimore has a tendency to struggle mightily in that area, because his strengths are tailor-made to be effective on reduced snaps. Gallimore possesses an elite get-off, impressive lateral quickness, notable power, an effective primary pass-rush move and a red-hot motor that never runs cold.
Much like how Antwaun Woods endeared himself to the Cowboys fanbase in 2018 for his high-effort plays, Gallimore could do the same in 2020. Furthermore, Gallimore’s electric first step will enable him to penetrate and make some splash plays in the backfield. He will also be an effective cog on stunts and twists that Dallas will inevitably use upfront on defense.
Therefore, don’t be surprised if Gallimore is another reserve who ends up playing a major role for the Cowboys in 2020.