Drafting Ezekiel Elliott three years ago (time sure does fly) dramatically changed the Dallas Cowboys. There’s no denying that.
Dallas are winners of two of the last three NFC East titles, and they have yet to post a record under .500 in the time that Elliott has been their lead back. Of course, the year that they did not win their division saw their all-world runner suspended for six games, and he’s made headlines this offseason for other troubling reasons.
This makes the contractual status of Ezekiel Elliott a bit more complicated than your average player. The Cowboys are already dealing with plenty of obstacles in the financial realm of football as they’re reportedly working on deals for quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper. This is coming right after they already signed pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence to the richest contract in team history, and other key contributors like Byron Jones are also awaiting new deals.
When you consider the running back position as a whole in today’s game of football it’s not as valuable as the ones the above-mentioned players play: QB, WR, DE, CB. You can debate those merits all day, plus the merits of Zeke’s off-the-field circumstances, but the fact is there is, at the very least, a debate when it comes to Elliott’s future deal.
Zeke is entering the fourth year of his rookie contract and the Cowboys already picked up his fifth-year option. This means that the team has him on the books through the 2020 season and if they truly wanted to they could place the franchise tag on him after that, a la Le’Veon Bell and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Obviously, if Elliott got a new deal before then that would render the hypothetical moot, but they may hold more water than you think. According to ESPN’s Dan Graziano, the Cowboys may not extend Elliott this or next offseason.
Based on conversations I’ve had with several people connected to this situation, I do not think Elliott gets an extension this offseason, or even next offseason. As vital a player as he is, the Cowboys don’t feel the same urgency with this deal that they do with Prescott, Cooper or even cornerback Byron Jones. They’ve picked up the 2020 option on Elliott for $9.099 million, and because running back numbers always stay low relative to other positions, they feel good about their ability to use the franchise tag on him in 2021 if need be. They have sensible cost control over Elliott for at least three years. At his current pace, three years equates to about 1,000 touches. Would you be in a hurry to extend a running back -- one of the most physically vulnerable positions in the league -- if you knew you had another 1,000 touches coming at a reasonable price?
Graziano is quite familiar with the Cowboys and NFC East in general so this coming from him is worth noting. We’ve heard Stephen Jones say at different points that the Cowboys are focused on long-term deals for their stars, Zeke certainly qualifies as a star, but this is one of the first times a report has surfaced that insinuates the franchise tag could be in plan for the 2021 season.
As mentioned, Elliott is one of the top running backs in the world, heck he might even be the very best. But the reality is that the position as a whole doesn’t hold as much value as other ones in the game of football. When you factor in off-the-field concerns on top of that, it makes sense as to why the Cowboys would be cautious about paying him big-time money.
Perhaps watching what happened to the Los Angeles Rams after paying Todd Gurley a year ago has served as a cautionary tale for the Cowboys. As Graziano mentions, if you know that you’ve got elite production for a moderate price for the next three years, what would be the rush to get rid of that luxury?