FRISCO — It’s maybe the worst-kept secret at The Star.
On Wednesday, Ezekiel Elliott offered the thinnest layer of concealment.
The Cowboys running back was asked in a video call with local reporters if he expects to see a larger role in the team’s passing game in 2020. Elliott is coming off a year in which he caught 54 passes, a solid figure that still fell 23 receptions short of his total the previous season.
Elliott waited a second to answer.
“Uh, yeah, I think I will be,” he said, his head bobbing slightly.
He looked up and to his right. Finally, after a couple seconds and while cracking a smile, he gave a blatant wink with his left eye.
Elliott made it a priority this offseason to become a better receiver. His training efforts are expected to be apparent in the coming months, beginning in Sunday’s season opener at the Los Angeles Rams. More action as a receiver is forecast, one of multiple potential differences in his usage this year.
The three-time Pro Bowler will be on the move in 2020.
According to Pro Football Focus, Elliott played 937 offensive snaps last year. Of those, a grand total of 37 snaps came when split in the slot. He was aligned out wide 20 times. And that’s it. The rest of his work — 93.9% of his reps — came while aligned in the traditional backfield area.
Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott trained together this offseason
They spent little of that time next to each other.
“I think this offseason, I really didn’t do anything from the backfield,” Elliott said. “I did a lot of stuff from out at receiver, in the slot. Just trying to evolve my game there, just so I can be more of a viable resource in the pass game.”
Prescott supported his teammate’s desire to develop.
He said that he encouraged Elliott, 25, to run some of the same routes that wide receiver Amari Cooper runs from out wide or that rookie wide receiver CeeDee Lamb runs from the slot.
“And that’s what he wanted to go do,” Prescott said. “He wants his game to evolve to that. He wants to be able to move all the way around, and I think that creates a new dynamic for our offense. We talk about the receivers and Blake Jarwin and the tight ends that we have. But when you can put Zeke out there and don’t know whether he’s going to run a route from there or motion back into the backfield and it be a run or play action, it just allows our game to be unlimited.
“So he’s done a great job at it, and I’ve just seen him evolve just with his knowledge and his knowledge within a route. More than, ‘Oh I’m just running an out route,’ but why the ball is coming out there and why he needs to get his shoulders around. He’s done a great job at it.”
Elliott has made no secret about wanting to improve out of the backfield.
Right guard Zack Martin seemed well aware of the subject when discussing Elliott on Wednesday.
“I think Zeke obviously wants to be the best back, not only that he can be but the best back there is right now,” Martin said. “He works incredibly hard at those different things. I know he’s talked a lot about being more of a receiver this year, and you can see him put in the work and just try to polish all parts of his game.”
There could be at least one other difference in Elliott’s usage this season.
From the shotgun formation, Elliott has said, the Cowboys hope to “marry” their looks more, running the ball more and thus becoming more multiple in that alignment. Last year, according to Pro Football Focus, Dallas ran on 18.7% of snaps from the shotgun, the 20th-highest frequency in the league. That rate could increase in 2020.
The Cowboys and Rams faced each other last December.
In that game, which Dallas won 44-21, Elliott played 47 offensive snaps. He lined up in the slot twice. He was out wide once.
This Sunday won’t be different. Not at all.
Ezekiel Elliott has lined up in the slot or out wide for 6.1% of his snaps during his Cowboys career. The percentage is likely to increase this season.