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Commitment issues: Cowboys may be considering life after Zeke

It may be just caution or normal business, but the latest from the team can be interpreted more than one way.

Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys took care of their most important offseason priority when they worked out the new deal with pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence. That leaves them with a quartet of players who are seen, in some order, as the next ones they need to get done: Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott, and Byron Jones. The Prescott situation has been attracting all the attention of late in wake of Russell Wilson’s big new contract with the Seattle Seahawks. According to the team, Prescott and Cooper are currently the subject of ongoing negotiations. Jones may have to wait a while, since the team picked up his fifth year option, which will bring him a guaranteed $6.26 million this year. And it looks like Elliott may have to be even more patient.

That fifth year is the 2020 season, so the team seems to feel no rush. And with the other three of the “remaining four” all on deals that expire after this season, it would not be much of a surprise for all of them to be handled before any real talks with Elliott and his representatives start.

Things could be pushed back even more. The team could elect to use the franchise tag on Elliott after 2020. Running backs are one of the lowest-cost positions for that, basically the same cost as safeties and just a bit more expensive than tight ends. While the number will undoubtedly go up, the current tag for running backs is $11.214 million, less than half what a quarterback would get, and just a bit more than two-thirds of the cost for a defensive end.

It may be cheaper than meeting Elliott’s demands, but it also risks creating a very tense situation. Further, it gets into the entire question of just how valuable a running back, any running back, truly is. There is a growing body of analysis that says that handing the ball off is the least effective play in the majority of down-and-distance situations, particularly in the first three quarters. This has led to a rather spirited debate in social media about how the Cowboys should handle Elliott. Is he worth a big payday? He is arguably the best player on the roster, but may not be the most valuable. That would be Prescott, because the NFL is a quarterback-driven league. You can also build a case that Lawrence, some or all of the offensive line, and perhaps even Cooper have a bigger impact on the outcome of games than Elliott.

That leads to another thing to come out of the pre-draft press conference the Cowboys held on Wednesday.

While the Cowboys know that Ezekiel Elliott is a special talent Stephen Jones did note that the team feels they can improve at the running back position. Asked if a pick was too rich to spend on a running back when someone like Zeke is on the roster, Stephen noted that it depends on the player. He expanded saying that if Zeke is healthy there aren’t going to be a lot of touches going to that player but that you will never know when you’re going to need a player like that.

It seems more and more like the Cowboys are leaning towards getting a compliment to Zeke in the backfield. Reading into what Stephen said you can almost assume that it’ll be somewhere in their first three picks.

A companion assertion to the lack of value the running back position holds is that it is perhaps the easiest of all positions to replace. An additional theory that is pertinent is that the success of the running game is actually more driven by other factors than the talent of the ball carrier, particularly the proficiency of the line blocking for him. The efficiency of the passing game also can be a factor in keeping the defense from stacking the box to stop the run. So that brings up a question that sits squarely in a social media minefield: Could Dallas elect to move on rather than pay Elliott a big, perhaps record-setting figure to retain him?

At first glance, that would seem to fly in the face of the expressed philosophy the team holds of building the offense around the running game. That is counter to the thinking mentioned above about how that is a now outdated approach. But it has for some time been the stance under Jason Garrett.

Of course, that also made it the approach of one Scott Linehan, who, as you may be aware, is no longer the offensive coordinator. He lost his job and was replaced by Kellen Moore in large part due to the predictability and lack of innovation offensively. Those seem tied closely to the entire run-first concept. Exactly how Moore will approach things remains to be seen, but the acceptance that a change had to be made at OC may also include a willingness to shift the focus from Elliott’s legs to Prescott’s arm.

Being also prepared to let Elliott seek his big payday elsewhere is hardly a foregone conclusion. This is more a matter of putting the pieces of the puzzle together a certain way, one that may not be the correct picture. But it is a logical possibility. They could always seek to get a “team-friendly” deal done. However, that does not seem like something the player would be at all interested in.

It will depend on how the offense performs this fall. And the Cowboys have time to evaluate that thanks to the availability of that fifth-year option. If, as many hope, Moore is able to make things more unpredictable and explosive, it may well make the idea of moving on from their superstar runner palatable.

That doesn’t sit well with many. But there is a ton of analytics that says it is the smart way to look at things. This is likely to be a very active and sometimes heated debate for some time. It is not about Elliott’s unquestioned talent. He is by just about any measure the best in the league at his job. The question really is how you want to approach things in today’s pass-centered NFL.

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