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Cowboys are smart to be cautious with Ezekiel Elliott, but they are swimming in treacherous waters

The Zeke contract ordeal isn’t going to be an easy one.

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It’s disappointing that the Dallas Cowboys two-time All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott is missing from training camp. The team is embarking on what they hope will be a special season and it’s a little bit of a let down that Elliott isn’t there with them.

But hey, it’s just business, right? That’s what we hear all the time. It’s just business. It’s just business. It’s true, the NFL does have this financial side to it where agents try to get as much money they can for their clients, while at the same time the 32 NFL teams must do everything they can to stay within the budget that is the NFL salary cap.

If you love Ezekiel Elliott like I do, then you might be inclined to think the Cowboys front office needs to just pony up the cash and get him to Oxnard as soon as possible. However, we must understand that Stephen Jones and company have been doing this type of thing for many many years, and most recently - they’ve been doing it well.

This isn’t his first rodeo. The front office has been outstanding when it comes to dealing with contracts. While some might argue a little bit over this guy versus that guy, the team has been pretty dead on when it comes to players they’ve kept and players they let walk. And all the extra money they’ve saved has put them in a position to be able to afford some big money deals.

While we don’t know the specifics, it’s obvious the two sides are enough apart that no deal is being reached. We have an idea what Elliott is wanting as it’s been reported he wants to be the highest paid running back in the league.

This isn’t a big shocker. He was the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft and he’s led the league in rushing in two of the last three seasons. We all knew Zeke’s demand was going to be rather substantial.

What we don’t know is what the Cowboys are willing to pay for him. Sure, there are talks about how the organization wants him around, but we heard that same thing about DeMarco Murray in the offseason of 2015. The Cowboys have indicated that they have made Elliott an offer, but have yet to receive a counter offer. Is it possible that offer is being scoffed at by Zeke’s side? We’ve heard stories about offers the front office has made to players like Murray or Cole Beasley, only to find out later that they weren’t remotely serious about re-signing them. Is it possible that’s the case here?

There’s a lot of talk about the value of a running back and just how wise it is to allocate a higher percentage of your cap resources to position that’s rather interchangeable. There’s also a lot of talk about how much running the ball adds to the success of your football team. Ted Nguyen from The Athletic did a fantastic job of assessing the value of the running game by covering as many basis as he could. He reaffirms the analytics involved as well as a few factors the numbers don’t always tell you.

While passing is a more valuable football play from an expected results perspective, running the ball sets the stage for a successful passing game.

“It’s not about just maximizing expected value for any individual play, it’s setting up aggregate expected value/return,” said Chris Brown, the editor of Smart Football. “So a run play might be micro inefficient but macro efficient because of what else it sets up/protects.”

This may seem obvious because for years and years running the ball has been such a huge part of the game of football. Clearly, thousands of coaches across the nation aren’t abandoning the run just because analytics disprove it’s value to the game. Instead, football is a game. It’s a game of strategy where coordinators are constantly trying to deceive their opponent with the unexpected.

Running the ball not only adds value for what it brings when it’s successful, but the threat of running the ball forces teams to defend it. That means they must employ run-stopping personnel at times to stop it. And every resource committed to doing that is one that isn’t focused on defending the pass. You can’t just roll with pass rushing specialists along the defensive line if they are a liability against the run. You can’t use extra defensive backs all the time if you need additional linebackers to stop the run. San Francisco 49ers run game coordinator Mike McDaniels isn’t buying into the merit of all these analytics.

“A lot of defenses could take away explosive pass games if they were able to play two-high, two-man all day. The reason they can’t: You have run fits that are a hat short in the run game,” said McDaniel. “You have to earn single safety in this league. Single safety opens up some passing holes with five eligibles and three deep. You have to earn that, and to earn that, you have to draw another guy into the box because they’re afraid you’re gonna run it.”

It’s not just about generating yards on the ground. It’s about creating opportunities. And that is what you have to look at closely when it comes to Ezekiel Elliott. What type of opportunities are the Cowboys giving up if they had a different running back carrying the ball? Suffice to say, having a player of Zeke’s caliber at running back gives them their best chance at earning single safety.

The Cowboys understand the value of the passing game. They traded away their first-round draft pick to get one of the better wide receivers in the league in Amari Cooper. They’ve also drafted Michael Gallup, The team has essentially remodeled their entire wide receiving corps in just over a year. They’ve also selected a pass-catching running back in Tony Pollard, as well as two premium draft picks have gone to offensive linemen Connor Williams and Connor McGovern to help protect Dak Prescott.

While there is no mystery that this team values running the ball, it’s still unclear how much they value Ezekiel Elliott doing it. Maybe they have a hard ceiling on what they’re willing to invest in Zeke, and if that can’t be met they’ll find ways to move on? Or maybe they don’t want to find out just how different things would be as they want to keep their offense as optimal as they can while they chase a Super Bowl?

When the dust settles, Elliott is probably going to get paid. However, there are no guarantees. It’s important to understand that while the coaching staff loves Zeke to death, the front office looks at the big picture. Investing $15+ million towards any player, especially a running back, is no easy decision.

Every year, this football team hits the reset button on a certain position group, putting a lot of inexperience in key places. Credit Jason Garrett for keeping this team competitive, but these types of radical changes make it hard to go deep into the postseason. Now, the team is finally entering a new season without a big shake up; however, shifting away from Zeke could end up being a monstrous set back for this offense. This is a good football team, but without Elliott - it’s hard imagining the team holding up the Lombardi in February.

Proceed cautiously, Dallas.

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