Based on the all the talking Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones did about running back Ezekiel Elliott and his potential return in the lead up to the 2024 NFL Draft before it actually happened this week post-draft, that begs a simple question: was Elliott's return always going to happen? 

Or, was his return always preferred over drafting a rookie at the running back position, something the Cowboys did not do

"You've got to look at the landscape of the position," Cowboys vice president of player personnel Will McClay said Wednesday, per LoneStarLive.com when talking about comparing a veteran addition at the position versus that of a rookie. "You know what's playing in the league and you're grading those guys against the [other] guys in the league, and then you're projecting on the college side. So you look at what's available and then you make your decisions based on that."

On Saturday after the draft concluded, Dallas COO and executive vice president Stephen Jones said the value didn't line up for the team to go running back in the third round and by the time the team was on the clock again 174th overall in the fifth round, a number of running backs they would have been interested in were off the board. 

"You know I think a lot of times there's always a question mark of, 'Would you really, really, really stick to your board?'" Stephen Jones said Saturday. "It just felt like every time the situation was there for us to make a pick and do the right thing, it wasn't a running back. We had running backs we'd be thinking, 'Ok, our pick is coming in 10 picks, eight picks, five picks away,' and then there would be a run. We obviously had a group of running backs there in that space of 75 or 85 players on the board [in the fourth and fifth rounds], and we had a handful of backs that we would've considered, but it just didn't work out. At the end of the day, you stay true to what you're about. ... We'll have opportunities throughout [the offseason] to address this running back situation, and we fell like we'll get it done. It makes a running back's job a lot easier when the guys up front are doing their job. I think we really helped that situation today in terms of the foundation of our offensive line group. We feel like we can address that [running back] position as we go."  

The lack of a fourth-round pick, after they traded it to the San Francisco 49ers for quarterback Trey Lance, prevented them from joining the running back party in the fourth round where seven rushers were chosen: Tennessee's Jaylen Wright (120th overall by Dolphins), Oregon's Bucky Irving (125th overall by Buccaneers), Clemson's Will Shipley (127th overall by Eagles), Kentucky's Ray Davis (128th overall by Bills), Louisville's Isaac Guerendo (129th overall by 49ers) and Wisconsin's Braelon Allen (134th overall by Jets). 

"We knew that was a part of what could happen because there are runs that happen at the position at different points in time," McClay said about the midround running back cluster of picks. … "The way that it fell, there were players that were graded at a certain level and we followed the board instead of forcing it for a 'need' at running back."  

After the draft board didn't align with the Cowboys' hole at the position created by Tony Pollard's departure to the Tennessee Titans in free agency, Dallas brought Elliott back on a one-year deal worth up to $3 million with $2 million in guaranteed money. 

"Zeke is a winning, starting running back in the league," McClay said. "So you turn on the tape, you saw him do things, running power gap schemes, running inside and outside zone, helping in pass protection -- all those things to show that the ability was still there. Adding him to this roster, it adds a guy that, No. 1, loves football, that wants to win here, that wants to be here, and that adds something to the roster from a leadership standpoint, as well as an ability to play."

However, just because Elliott, who ranks No. 3 in Cowboys history in rushing yards (8,262) and rushing touchdowns (68), is back doesn't mean his days as Dallas' bell cow are. Head coach Mike McCarthy named a number of different running backs who could contribute to the team's rotation post-draft on Saturday: Rico Dowdle (a 2020 undrafted free agent), Deuce Vaughn (a 2023 sixth-round pick), new free agent signee Royce Freeman (a 2018 third-round pick), Hunter Luepke (a 2023 undrafted free agent) and Malik Davis (a 2022 undrafted free agent). 

McClay agrees, sharing the mindset that the Cowboys' handling of their running back won't involve Elliott handling 300 or more carries anymore, something he did in 2016, 2018 and 2019. He led the NFL in rushing yards in the first two of those three years in 2016 and 2018. 

"I think the running back position this day and age is not that old school, one guy as the lead back and the others fill in," McClay said. "It's a group by committee. What he'll [Elliott] add to that group, we're excited about it."