Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a first-, second- or third-year player whose NFL success has surpassed where he was drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.
Memphis RB Tony Pollard
6-foot, 201 pounds
2019 NFL draft: Round 4, No. 128 overall
In his first two games in 2021, Pollard has at least started a conversation: Should he — and not Ezekiel Elliott — be the Cowboys' featured back? Following a four-catch game in the opening loss to Tampa Bay, Pollard ran 13 times for 109 yards and the game's first TD in the eventual win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
For the Week 2 game, Elliott had 18 offensive touches to Pollard's 16 — a fairly even split. And it was about when and where Pollard got those touches. Four came on the opening drive, including the TD. From the final play of the third quarter to the end of the game, in a one-score affair, Pollard out-touched Elliott, six to four.
The Cowboys might not be moving away from Elliott immediately, but in the short term, Pollard at least has carved out an increased role in the Dallas offense. Will this trend continue? And why was he only the 11th running back selected in the 2019 draft?
How we viewed Tony Pollard as a prospect
Pollard was a 2-star Rivals recruit who was a high school defensive back and wide receiver. He had only two offers: Memphis and Austin Peay. After committing to the Tigers, followed by a redshirt season in 2015, Pollard became one of the best returners in college football. In 2016, he ranked in the top 10 among FBS kick returners in total yards (second), kick-return average (eighth), kick-return TDs (second) and total kick returns (sixth).
Pollard's offensive contributions slowly increased over his three college seasons, moving from wide receiver to running back. But it was a crowded Tigers backfield he was competing in, sharing time with Patrick Taylor Jr. (who'd spend time on the Packers' roster) and eventual 2019 Rams third-rounder Darrell Henderson for all three seasons. As a result, Pollard finished his career with a mere 139 carries but averaged an impressive 6.8 yards and totaled nine TDs.
Pollard also caught 104 passes for a gaudy 1,292 yards and nine more scores. All told, he found the end zone 25 times (also seven kick-return TDs) on only 332 career touches. His performance in the Tigers' Birmingham Bowl loss (318 all-purpose yards) led him to declare early for the 2019 NFL draft. That was enough to earn Pollard a Senior Bowl invite, and he made the most of it with a game-high 60 rushing yards on eight carries, including a 21-yard TD run in the fourth quarter to help the North Team to a 34-24 win.
Here's what we wrote about Pollard — our favorite Cowboys pick that year — in our final team grades:
None of their picks blew our hair back, but Pollard has a chance to be a spark plug immediately. He’s not going to be an advanced player right away, as he came from a simple, favorable offense at Memphis where he was often single-covered (or running through gaping holes) in a mismatch scheme. But his natural receiving and return ability are nice assets, and Pollard’s burst can give the offense a different look in one or two series a game while giving Ezekiel Elliott a breather.
So we clearly liked him as a change of pace. At the time, Zeke was considered a front-line back en route to stardom. But adding Pollard felt like a great complementary pick to what looked like a battleship offense at the time.
Why did Pollard slip in the draft?
The biggest knock on Pollard at the time might have been that he was considered a versatile player but perhaps a master of none. He was raw as a running back, unfamiliar with complex pass-protection schemes and more gifted as a receiver than as a pure, instinctive back. In short, he was viewed more as a gadget player — a change-of-pace weapon, albeit one with home-run ability.
Pollard's NFL combine was strong from a testing standpoint (4.52-second 40-yard dash, 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-foot-1 broad jump). But some evaluators told us they were worried about his interview sessions, where Pollard revealed that tape study was an area he admitted he needed major growth and improvement.
Even with a killer pro-day workout, with Pollard dropping his 40 time to 4.38 seconds, teams' opinions were only swayed so much. There was a pre-draft sense he still needed time to grow before he was ready to offer major contributions.
But what the Cowboys found was that Pollard offered great burst, instant juice on offense and the perfect Robin to Elliott's Batman role. Pollard carried the ball 86 times for 455 yards (including two 100-yard games) and two TDs as a rookie, also catching 15 passes and running back 14 kickoffs. He'd reprise a similar role in 2020, increasing his workload slightly and keeping up his strong per-touch production.
There's still the question of volume. Pollard has never had more than 18 offensive touches in any NFL game, and he's only had 253 offensive touches in his 33 career contests.
Since coming into the league, however, he's had a big-play edge over Elliott, whose contract is a major strain on the Cowboys' salary cap. When Elliott signed a six-year, $90 million extension with Dallas, it pretty much tethered him to the team through 2021 at the least. Cutting him after next June 1 would leave the team with more than $16 million in dead money, but it's something they might have to consider.
Pollard, meanwhile, makes a relative pittance with base salaries under $1 million this year and next.
Although Pollard might never be a true workhorse in the NFL — even if that definition has gone by the wayside a bit compared to past eras — it feels like his duties only will increase for a Cowboys team that no longer appears to view Elliott as a bellcow.