The Dallas Cowboys are fast approaching a “fish or cut bait” decision regarding Ezekiel Elliott. He’s entering the fourth year of his rookie deal, which includes a team option to retain Zeke for a fifth season.
Which means they are soon going to have to decide whether Elliott is worthy of a second contract that would likely approach $15 million or more per year. The decision on whether to extend Zeke will determine how the team plans to handle Zeke’s work load over the next couple seasons.
Honestly, being an elite running back in the NFL is a tough gig. Running backs, more than any other position, tend to excel during the early years of their career and then decline rather dramatically once they reach 25. You can read about aging curves by position here. Included in the article by Scott Barrett is this graph he created, which pretty much tells the story:
As you can see, the average NFL running back peaks 2-3 years into his career with a significant and steady decline thereafter. Which means under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement running backs face a very difficult challenge maximizing their NFL earnings; by the time they reach free agency they’re a diminished asset in the eyes of NFL decision-makers.
But Ezekiel Elliott isn’t an average NFL running back, he’s an elite running back. Over his first three years in the league Zeke has put up 106 yards from scrimmage per game. Know who else averaged 106 yards from scrimmage his first 40 games? Emmitt Smith. That’s one of many metrics where Elliott’s early career performance resembles other Hall of Fame running backs.
We’ve written previously about how Elliott’s early career has all the elements of a lengthy, productive, Hall of Fame career. Which puts the Cowboys in a bit of a predicament. On the one hand, you don’t want to hand out a monster contract to a player whose best years are behind him. On the other hand, letting Hall of Fame players walk in the middle of their career is not the smartest thing an NFL franchise can do (fans tend to frown on watching former Cowboys succeeding elsewhere).
Which brings us to the decision to draft a running back in the fourth round of this year’s NFL draft. Make no mistake - Tony Pollard was not brought in to play special teams and sit on the bench. He was brought in to contribute on offense. The expectation is that he’ll be a change-of-pace, third-down-type back. While the comparisons to Alvin Kamara are misguided (Kamara had 200 touches his rookie year and 275 last season, numbers Pollard won’t approach barring a Zeke injury) it is clear Pollard will take snaps from Elliott. Zeke had an ungodly 433 touches (including post-season) in 2018. He’s already handled the ball 1,078 times in three seasons (an average of 356 times per year). This despite missing eight games total over those three years.
In short, the Cowboys have been running Zeke hard and running him often. And that kind of early career usage is what gives franchises hesitation about handing out a lucrative long-term contract that takes a running back into his 30’s or even late 20’s.
And now the Cowboys are reaching a crossroads with Elliott. There’s really only two ways to go from this point forward, when it comes to Elliott’s usage. It’s a sterile, cold-blooded approach but it’s also 100% logical. The Cowboys can either:
- Run Elliott into the ground the last two years of his rookie deal - using him as frequently as possible with the understanding that after five years they’ll thank him for his All Pro-caliber contributions, then wish him luck on his future endeavors.
- Reduce his workload to a more manageable level so that he can continue being a high caliber player for a longer period of time.
There’s really no in-between regarding how to handle Elliott’s workload these next two seasons. You either get the most of him while you can, or try to extend his best years through a reduced workload. Again, that’s a cold-blooded approach when you’re talking about a living, breathing person with normal human emotions, but it’s also totally understandable from an asset management perspective.
Which brings us to the topic of the day: does the Cowboys decision to draft Tony Pollard tell us which way the Cowboys are leaning in how to handle Ezekiel Elliott?
I think the answer is obvious. Again, Pollard isn’t being brought in to sit on the bench and play special teams (that’s the likely fate of the seventh-round pick, running back Mike Webster, should he make the team). Which means the selection of Pollard tells us the Cowboys view Elliott as a long-term asset to be protected and maintained - and not a short-term asset.
Now, the future is uncertain. Elliott could be even better than before in 2019 and 2020; or he could suffer a downturn in performance; or something in between. The point is the Cowboys don’t have to make a decision now and future events could make the Elliott decision a no-brainer (in either direction).
What is clear (to me anyway), is the front office has rejected one possible approach to handling Elliott’s last two years on his rookie contract. They will not be going to the whip and riding him as hard and frequently as possible. He won’t be getting the DeMarco Murray treatment - Murray had a jaw-dropping 500 touches in 2014. That was both a record-setting season for Murray (who led the league in rushing and set a Cowboys’ record for most rushing yards) and the final season on his rookie contract. The Cowboys made no real effort to retain Murray, which proved to be wise; he never came close to replicating that season and totaled only 2,648 yards the rest of his career, while playing for other teams.
Time will tell whether Elliott will get a second contract with Dallas. I hope he does as I think he’s a generational talent. I think the Cowboys see the same thing and their draft decisions show they’re going to put Elliott in a situation to thrive over the long run, not just the last couple years of his rookie deal.
What do you think? Does the acquisition of Pollard indicate the Cowboys see Elliott as a generational running back? Or was it just common sense to bring in a quality second running back?
Does the Cowboys’ draft of Tony Pollard indicate they plan to keep Elliott long-term?
This poll is closed
Meh - they’re just hedging their bets and doing what’s smart.
No. They have no plan to extend Elliott and will let him walk when the time comes.