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How Todd Gurley’s contract extension affects the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott

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Will the Cowboys give Zeke a big pay day when the time comes? If so, Elliott has the Rams to thank.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Dallas Cowboys Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest news this offseason regarding the running back position in the NFL was the contract negotiations between star Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. The do-it-all playmaker was an offensive threat for the Steelers in both the run game and the pass game, and Bell feels that he should be paid than just a guy that runs the ball. Pittsburgh, however, opted to place the franchise tag on the former Michigan State tailback for the second consecutive offseason.

That got many thinking that the Steelers/Bell saga would be a preview of what would be to come between the Dallas Cowboys and their own superstar in the backfield, Ezkiel Elliott. In fact, in addition to picking the Cowboys to win a Super Bowl by 2021, ESPN’s Dan Graziano predicts that Dallas and Zeke will have trouble negotiating a long-term deal.

8. The Cowboys end up in a bind over the Ezekiel Elliott contract.

Bell’s situation isn’t going to be the last difficult running back contract over the next couple of years. Running back is a weird position. Because of the rookie wage scale and the relative stagnation of veteran running back salaries, a back taken in the top five or 10 picks of the draft these days instantly becomes one of the highest-paid backs in the league. Teams aren’t getting bargains on backs taken that high the way they are with quarterbacks and pass-rushers on their rookie deals. This is why the Cowboys are going to have a problem when Elliott’s rookie deal ends. The Rams’ 2019 fifth-year option on Todd Gurley is $9.63 million, which means Elliott’s fifth-year option in 2020 is likely to be higher than $10 million, which means a high starting point for negotiations when Elliott’s agent goes to the team to start discussions on a second contract. And this will continue for backs taken high -- Leonard Fournette’s 2021 option will be higher than Elliott’s 2020 option. Saquon Barkley’s 2022 option will be higher than Fournette’s. And so on. Either the top of the running back market has to move soon, or teams are going to have to make tough decisions on these guys when their rookie deals start ending.

The value of the running back has been greatly diminished by many over the past decade or so. The explosion of the passing game has resulted in big pay days for the signal-callers and the elite pass catchers, though even receivers like Julio Jones are holding out in hopes of getting compensated more.

However, the past few drafts have seen teams value running backs more. We saw the Rams select Todd Gurley in the top-10 back in 2015. Ezekiel Elliott was the Cowboys’ choice in the top-5 the very next draft. Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey were both taken within the first eight picks in 2017, while Saquon Barkley was the number two overall pick in a QB-heavy draft this past April.

The point is that maybe running backs are making a comeback, despite the Steelers’ unwillingness to commit big money to their star back.

Tuesday is a big day for running backs across the league, including Bell and Zeke. Todd Gurley has emerged as one of the elite backs in the National Football League, and the Rams have decided to pay him like an elite offensive weapon, inking the tenth overall selection of the 2015 NFL Draft to a four-year, $60 million ($45 guaranteed) contract extension. That is the reportedly the most guaranteed money for a running back by nearly $10 million, and NFL insider Adam Schefter says this is finally the kind of deal that “resets” the RB market.

A month too late for Bell, eh? Nonetheless, Schefter’s next tweet brings us to where the Cowboys come into this, as the veteran reporter notes that Gurley’s extension gives the CardinalsDavid Johnson and Dallas’ Elliott “a new benchmark”.

While an argument exists that as long as the Great Wall of Dallas is in place, the Cowboys will be able to plug-and-play any running back they want to, there is no denying that Zeke is a special kind of talent. He is, in my opinion, a generational back capable of making an impact running the football, catching the ball out of the backfield, and in pass protection. There aren’t many backs that can do all three of those things at an elite level, regardless of which five linemen are in front of them.

Our own David Howman wrote an interesting piece detailing how the hire of Sanjay Lal can prevent the Cowboys from entering the same scenario that the Steelers are currently in with Bell — thanks in large part to Dallas’ adjustment to wanting to spread the ball around to a handful of receivers, rather than spending money on a top-end wideout.

Luckily, the Cowboys might be able to just sign Zeke to a contract extension outright, and it could have a lot to do with new wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. There has been a lot of talk about the impact that Lal will bring to the Cowboys’ receiving corps and specifically about the idea that Dallas doesn’t need a number one receiver, but rather multiple different receivers who are great route runners. If this approach works out, the Cowboys can then justify not dedicating as much money to the receiver position as most teams do.

There is also reason to believe that Elliott may be given more opportunities to make an impact as a receiver in a Dak-friendly scheme. Through 25 games, Zeke has caught 58 passes for over 630 yards and three touchdowns, per Pro Football Reference. We have seen the Ohio State product be deadly on screens and he has showcased impressive hands during both his collegiate and professional careers. That can’t hurt.

Gurley’s new contract has reset the running back market, but it’s not out of question that other teams will still be hesitant to commit big money to a position that has an average lifespan of less than three seasons. Still, though, Zeke is a unique talent that makes the Cowboys go. Moving forward, the Cowboys may decide to commit to the fourth overall selection of the 2016 draft in the same way that the Rams have done with Gurley when the time comes.

With Dak Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence also competing for long-term big money, the Cowboys have some important decisions to make on the horizon. The franchise tag helps in the short-term with these kind of scenarios, but can be costly as time passes. We have seen this front office move on from a league-leading rusher before, so we’ll see what happens.

No matter what the Cowboys opt to do, the Rams’ commitment to Todd Gurley has given Zeke and his agents a lot of leverage when contract talks begin.