The front office of the Cowboys have established themselves as a top unit over recent times. It starts with the wonderful job Will McClay and the scouting department has done finding great talent. Then, there’s the head coach. Regardless of what you think of Jason Garrett, it’s hard to find coaches in the league who do a better job getting his players to play with such intensity and concentration at the task at hand, all while drowning out the noise associated with such a media-crazed organization like the Dallas Cowboys. And then there is Stephen Jones, who has somehow managed to subdue his once reckless dice-rolling father, and interject some financial responsibility into the team.
Collectively, they have created a process. Their process. A system of gathering the right type of players, developing them into stars, and then signing them to long-term deals. Amidst all the drama that has gone along with the Ezekiel Elliott contract situation, the Cowboys front office never panicked. Even when their star player was nowhere to be found at training camp, it’s as if they knew a deal was going to get done all along.
When Elliott was drafted with the fourth-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, he was the highest draft resource the Cowboys have had in 25 years. Zeke was always going to be re-signed; the only question was - for how much?
And now, we have the answer to that question. To the credit of the Joneses, they did a great job working the contract to not only secure a top talent like Zeke, but to leave them outs in case something should go awry. Let’s take a moment to examine this contract, and there are three big reasons why the structuring of the Zeke deal works out great for the Cowboys.
Reason #1 - The cap hit for the first two years hasn’t changed
If Elliott just rode out his contract, the Cowboys would be getting him for the cost of the last year of his rookie deal, plus his fifth-year option. Those numbers equated to $7.9 M and $9.1 M respectively, totaling $17 million over the next two seasons.
If we take a look at the cap hit for the first two years of his new deal, those numbers have essentially stayed the same, with only a $200,000 increase to the cap between those two years.
Reason #2 The Cowboys have an easy out after four years
We all know Zeke’s great, and now he’s getting paid like one of those special running backs. But what if he’s not so special a few years down the road? A player like Adrian Peterson had the resiliency to where he didn’t drop below 200 carries until he was 29 years old, but those types of players are anomalies these days. There is no guarantee that Elliott is also one of those exceptions to the rule that isn’t impacted by that running back wall we keep hearing about.
Looking at how the contract is structured, the Cowboys have themselves a built-in escape hatch.
If for some reason, Elliott shows sign of wear after the 2022 season, the Cowboys can release him while only absorbing a $6.7 dead money hit. That means the team gets Zeke in his prime for a cost of four-years, $50M, equating to just $12.5 M annually. That is a real good bargain for a player with Elliott’s talent.
Reason #3 - He’ll be a bargain later, too
If 2023 gets here and Elliott is clearing a path to Canton, the team won’t be exercising that potential out available to them. With most of his bonus money already paid out at this point of his contract, it would only cost the Cowboys another $52.9 M to keep him on their roster for four more years.
When you add the rest of his bonus money to that total, that equates to a four year average of $14.9 million from 2023 to 2026. That’s more than the $12.5 M he’s costing the team the first four years, but keep in mind that the salary cap keeps increasing about 6% per year. If Elliott is worth keeping around into his thirties, not only is that going to mean he’ll be an eventual gold-jacket wearer, but his percentage of the cap being used will drop him into the “reasonably priced” range.
The team basically enters into a pay-as-you-go situation with Elliott as they can assess things year by year to determine if it still makes sense to use their cap fund for his services. Looking at the entire contract:
It’s really a thing of beauty when you look at it closely. Examining the details of Elliott’s contract serves as a reminder of what a financial wizard Stephen Jones really is. It was very well structured deal, and honestly it was worth the wait.