The Dallas Cowboys are in great shape when it comes to the salary cap. Thanks to years of correcting mishaps, the front office finds themselves with over $150 million in cap space over the next two years. That’s sixth-most in the NFL. It’s taken a lot of bold personnel decisions to allow them such financial freedom, but it’s now opened the door for great things going forward.
Is keeping Ezekiel Elliott in a Cowboys uniform for years to come one of those great things?
That’s a question many have posed in recent weeks as we try to figure out which players are going to get new lucrative deals real soon. DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott, and Amari Cooper are just a few stars that should be getting a new contract as early as this offseason. But what about Zeke? Does he get a new deal too? My colleague, Mr. Tom Ryle, recently wrote a piece that makes a case for not giving Elliott a hefty second contract. There are a lot of people that share that sentiment, but I am not one of them.
There’s a long list as to why it seems obvious to want Elliott on the roster. First, there is the team’s investment. The Cowboys drafted him with the fourth overall pick in 2016 and they would like to get something beyond just his rookie deal. There are still many that don’t think it is wise to use premium draft capital on a position such as a running back and the organization shouldn’t compound one mistake with another. It’s true that the Cowboys shouldn’t have a hell or high-water stubbornness approach when it comes to Elliott. Just because they made such a huge draft commitment in him shouldn’t guarantee a big second contract. Morris Claiborne should serve as proof that the Cowboys don’t subscribe to this way of thinking. What’s happened, happened, and it’s the future that matters now. While being such a high draft pick isn’t a reason to retain him, why he was a high draft pick - is.
Elliott is an amazing talent. His pro resumé is already pretty colorful and he’s just 23 years old. Zeke has two rushing titles over his first three years in the league. It would’ve been three had it not been for a suspension in 2017 that saw him miss six games. He trailed Kareem Hunt by 344 yards that year, which he would’ve reached easily if he was on the field. Game for game, there isn’t a better running back in the league in terms of production. Over the last 50 years, only one running back is averaging over 100 yards per game for their NFL career. Any guesses who that might be?
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1965 to find the only player (Jim Brown) who is averaging more yards per game than Zeke. That’s great and all, but let’s give some perspective. Many talented backs are fast out of the great, but their yards per game slow down as their careers move along. This shouldn’t take away from the fact that only six running backs in the history of the NFL have reached 4,000 yards faster than Zeke. When your name is being mentioned with players like Jim Brown, Eric Dickerson, and Earl Campbell - that’s a good thing. Those players are true greats of the NFL. Is it possible Zeke will end up being one of those true greats?
You bet, it’s possible. The talent of this guy is off the charts. Elliott is a complete running back. He’s elusive, he’s strong, he’s got great vision, he’s got great speed in the open field, he’s a good receiver, and he’s reliable as a pass protector. He’s super competitive and he’s very durable. Zeke has never missed a game due to injury.
Elliott is a physical runner. He loves to lower his shoulders and inflict pain on defenders. He keeps those legs pumping, which is how he milks every last yard out of each carry. Not only do these types of productive gains help keep his team in manageable situations, but all this punishment takes a toll on the defense. Eventually, the legs of the defense start to give and that is when the Cowboys finish the fight. Most people are aware that Dak Prescott has the most game-winning drives in the league (including playoffs) of any NFL quarterback since 2016. But let’s not forget all the dirty work that Zeke provided leading up to that point. Let’s take an inside look at all six of Dak’s game-winnings from the 2018 season and check out Elliott’s numbers in those games:
Elliott is averaging nearly 200 yards per game in those contests. Having over 2,000 scrimmage yards is an impressive feat, but it’s even more impressive when you consider that four starting offensive linemen all missed at least one game due to injury/health issues. Only La’el Collins started all 16 games on the offensive line. The team relied on help from the following:
- Joe Looney, 1,076 snaps (100%)
- Connor Williams, 688 snaps (64%)
- Xavier Su’a-Filo, 494 snaps (46%)
- Cameron Fleming, 232 snaps (22%)
- Adam Redmond, 96 snaps (9%)
But Zeke and company kept grinding out wins on route to another division title. In the Cowboys 11 wins last season (including playoffs), all but one of them were decided by just one score. Are the Cowboys pulling out these wins with a different running back carrying the workload?
Not only did Elliott have to work around an offensive line that had their fair share of struggles, but he also had to deal with extra attention by the defense. According to Next Gen Stats, of the top 10 running backs who had the most carries this past season, no running back faced more loaded boxes than Ezekiel Elliott.
Every move the front office makes is designed around making Prescott’s job easier. There isn’t a more Dak-friendly fixture on this team than Mr. Elliott. And let’s not kid ourselves - Elliott is the Cowboys offense. Everything runs through Zeke. Elliott accounted for 36% of the Cowboys offense last season.
Dak Prescott wanted to share his Offensive Rookie of the Year trophy with his buddy Zeke. pic.twitter.com/pr5UHkVcQy— ESPN (@espn) February 5, 2017
It takes a collective effort for a team to be successful, but good things happen when they have a dominant running back. Seven times throughout history a Cowboys running back has led the league in rushing. In each one of those instances, they made the playoffs.
The two teams that just squared off in the Super Bowl both have a running back who were taken in the first round. The Los Angeles Rams re-upped on Todd Gurley, making him the highest-paid running back in the league. And the New England Patriots used their first-round pick last year for Sony Michel, who had a solid rookie season with 931 rushing yards. Both the Rams and Patriots are in the top five in cap allocation resources to running backs for the upcoming season. The only difference is - Gurley makes up almost all of the Ram’s funds, whereas the Patriots spread out their resources over Michel, James White ($4 million), and Rex Burkhead ($3 million). Both approaches have proved effective. You can make a case that teams shouldn’t spend money on running backs, but don’t tell that to the teams that were just in the Super Bowl. Just because the Patriots don’t spend a bunch of money on a single player doesn’t mean they’re not throwing a lot of resources that way. It’s perfectly okay to rely on a running back by committee, but you don’t need a committee when the running back is versatile enough to never come off the field.
Most of the top teams last season had a great running back racking up the yards for them. From Alvin Kamara to Melvin Gordon - there was no shortage of star running backs. Some may point to the success of James Conner to rationalize how interchangeable running backs are. Conner had a great season rushing for 973 yards and nobody appeared to be missing Le’Veon Bell when the Pittsburgh Steelers started the season with a 7-2 record. But Conner never gained more than 65 yards rushing in a game over the second half of the season and the Steelers would only win two of their last six games. Without their All-Pro running back, Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2013. Would Bell made a difference? It’s hard to say, but the Steelers organization didn’t commit to a second contract for Bell and fans are left wondering what could’ve been.
The Cowboys have invested over $250 million in building an offensive line to open running lanes for their running back. When you factor in Zeke’s talent combined with how well he fits into the offense, he’s the perfect player to max out what a running back can do. Elliott still has one year remaining on his rookie deal. Since he was a first-round pick, the team can exercise a fifth-year option, which they will certainly do. That keeps him on the books for two more years. The Cowboys don’t have to be in a hurry to get him re-signed like they do some of their other players, but he should be a part of their future plans.
Here are 21 reasons the Cowboys should sign Elliott to a second contract...
- He’s a two-time All-Pro.
- He’s one of the fastest running backs to reach 4,000 yards rushing.
- He’s a physical runner who can power through short-yardage situations.
- He wears down defenses that helps his team finish games.
- He’s the most Dak-friendliest piece on the entire team.
- Everything runs through Zeke as he accounted for 36% of the team’s offense.
- He was still effective despite issues on the offensive line.
- He’s a good receiving back, catching 77 passes in 2018.
- He’s ultra competitive and has enjoyed success at all levels.
- When he plays a full season, he leads the league in rushing.
- When the Cowboys have the league’s leading rusher, they go to the playoffs.
- He led the league in rushing despite constantly going up against eight-man fronts.
- He’s extremely durable; never missed an NFL game due to injury.
- Despite being a thick, powerful runner, he’s got deceptive speed to break big runs.
- Complete running backs are a rare find.
- He’s never lost to the Eagles.
- Winning teams invest resources in running backs.
- The Cowboys have invested over $250 mil in a wall to run behind - max out that investment!
- He invites contact and is a willing contributor is pass protection.
- He’s only 23 years old. His second contract gives the team his prime years.
- Elliott is one of the most talented players in the league.
230 yards, most ever against a Nick Saban coached team. He was jumping over Landon Collins before it was cool.— Dan Rogers (@DannyPhantom24) February 23, 2019
The Cowboys shouldn't extend Zeke just because he was taken 4th overall.
They should extend him because he's one of the most talented players in the league. pic.twitter.com/j4RWFYq4aj
All these things point to Elliott being worth a second contract in Dallas. Is it possible to still win games without Elliott on the team? Sure. It’s also possible to drive a car with your feet, but that doesn’t make it a good idea.
Feed Zeke. Pay Zeke. Then, feed him some more.