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After one season: Debating the Cowboys move of giving Ezekiel Elliott a huge contract

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We all love Zeke, but was signing him to a big deal the right move?

NFL: Dallas Cowboys at Philadelphia Eagles Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Recently, ESPN took a look back at moves made by teams this past offseason and how they panned out. They broke them down into categories that included best moves, worst moves, underrated moves and ones that we’re still waiting on.

The Cowboys didn’t make any of the first three categories (best, worst, underrated) but they did slip into the last category of moves that are still out there waiting for a final determination. That move by the Cowboys was the contract handed out to Ezekiel Elliott.

The Ezekiel Elliott contract extension

Elliott became the highest-paid running back in the league by holding out of training camp and forcing the Cowboys to confront life without him. The 2019 season was the first of his career in which Elliott did not lead the league in rushing yards per game. The Cowboys’ offense evolved and produced at an extremely high level behind quarterback Dak Prescott’s career season.

Elliott didn’t play poorly by any means — he still finished fourth in the league in rushing. But given the money involved, and the way the offense seemed to lean on him less after he got it, it’s fair to wonder whether Elliott’s deal will prove to be worth it or whether it will become just another data point for teams that fear overpaying at the running back position.

This is still an interesting question. Should the Cowboys have given such a large contract to a position that is notorious for injury or burnout, and seems to be one of the most easily replaceable positions in the NFL? As noted above by Dan Graziano, the Cowboys new-look offense under Kellen Moore last year was not as reliant on Zeke as the Cowboys were in previous seasons (even though all those runs called on first down sure made it seem like the old Cowboys).

Heading into 2020, the Cowboys will be under the direction of Mike McCarthy, whose history in the West Coast offense makes the chances of a Zeke-powered offense even less likely. McCarthy has never been known as a guy who overworks his backs in the run game.

This isn’t to say that Zeke won’t be used and won’t be integral to the offense. The Cowboys tended to under-use Elliott in the passing game, something he’s proven pretty adept at when given the chance. But you also have to wonder how Tony Pollard will look in his second year and under a modified scheme with McCarthy’s influence.

When the Cowboys signed Elliott, it was initially looked at as a huge contract, with some branding it an over-pay right out of the gate. If looking at the replacement factor, you could make that case. Plenty of teams are getting big results from running backs that didn’t cost nearly as high of a draft pick and have so much money tied up in a contract. That’s the current NFL and why most teams have shied away from draft running backs that high.

A closer examination of the contract, though, shows it’s not as favorable to Elliott as portrayed. Don’t get it wrong, he got premium money, but the Cowboys also structured it so they have an out around age 27 for Elliott (after the 2022 season), just about the time many running backs start going into decline.

From Over The Cap:

Ezekiel Elliott signed a six year, $90 million contract extension with the Cowboys on September 4, 2019. Elliott received $50 million in guarantees, $28 million of which is fully guaranteed at signing. Per Todd Archer Elliott will receive a $7.5 million signing bonus and $13 million option bonus. His 2019 and 2020 salaries are fully guarantees. If on the roster on the 5th day of the 2020 league year his 2021 salary becomes guaranteed and if on the roster on the 5th day of the 2021 league year his 2022 salary will be fully guaranteed.

After the 2022 season, the Cowboys could consider moving on with about $6.7 million of dead money. The next season that dead money drops to $2.6 million.

So Zeke definitely got paid, but the Cowboys are not tied to him after the premium years of a running back. But, they still are paying a lot of money to a running back, and that is tying up money that could have gone to signing someone like Byron Jones, Robert Quinn, or some potential outside free agent.

The Cowboys could have gone an alternative route of letting Elliott play out his rookie deal then tagged him. Of course, Elliott might have continued his holdout and might have balked at getting tagged. We’ll never know how that scenario would have played out.

There’s no denying that Zeke is a premium running back. He is durable, he is productive, and can play all phases of the game on offense. And play them at a very high level. The question becomes: is he worth that much more money than other backs, especially if the Cowboys do not emphasize the run game quite as much as they did in the Jason Garrett/Scott Linehan era.

The jury is still out on this move, as indicated by ESPN, but we want your thoughts anyway. Did the Cowboys do the right thing, or make a mistake, in paying Elliott the big bucks?

Poll

Paying Ezekiel Elliott a big contract was:

This poll is closed

  • 38%
    the right move by the Cowboys.
    (761 votes)
  • 61%
    a mistake by the Cowboys.
    (1218 votes)
1979 votes total Vote Now