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While star-caliber longevity for running backs is going extinct, Ezekiel Elliott is fighting the trend

Zeke is just a special player.

Washington Redskins v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It’s been a rough go for running backs looking for a second contract in the NFL. With the amount of wear and tear the job has on players, it’s not one of those positions that teams are willing to throw a lot of money at. Currently, only four running backs in the league make above $10 million, with Ezekiel Elliott leading the pack with an annual average salary of $15 million.

Everyone has their own opinion about whether or not that was a good move by the Cowboys. With the recent fallout of some would-be stars, it only adds more fuel to the fire.

Good players are worth good money. While there are certainly some issues that went along with some of these contract ordeals, it should be noted that it’s very possible that Zeke is the exception to the rule. Let’s examine some of these running backs and see if Elliott is on a similar path.

Le’Veon Bell

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The Pittsburgh Steelers tried to milk everything they could out of Le’Veon Bell. After playing through is rookie deal, the Steelers slapped the franchise tag on him in 2017 for $12 million. They tried to do it again the following season for $14 M, but Bell said no dice, and took a stand that lasted the entire 2018 season. He was rewarded with a new four-year, $52 M deal ($13.1 annually) with the New York Jets last offseason.

The Steelers, on the other hand, opted to go with James Conner. That looked like a great idea at first, but then it fizzled quickly. Conner only played in 10 games last year, gaining just 464 yards (still led the Steelers in rushing). Pittsburgh has finished in the bottom four in rushing in each of the last two seasons. They also missed the playoffs in of those seasons after four straight appearances. The Steelers problems extend to more than just not having Bell, but his departure was definitely felt.

Todd Gurley

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While Bell didn’t get the love from the team that drafted him and had to go about things the hard way, the Los Angeles Rams rewarded Todd Gurley with a four-year, $57.5 million deal that made him the highest paid running back in the league. After the 2017 season saw him combine for over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 19 total touchdowns, the Rams felt they had their guy. But fast forward two years, and the two-time All-Pro running back just received his pink slip as the Rams released him last week. How quickly the worm can turn.

Gurley didn’t stay unemployed long though as the Atlanta Falcons signed him to a one-year, $6 million deal the very next day.

Melvin Gordon

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Gurley was the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, but the San Diego Chargers selected the next best running back in Melvin Gordon five spots later. While Gordon didn’t thrill the crowd with playmaking ability, he was the Chargers grinder. With a high volume of touches, he churned out the yards; however, he never even reached an average of four yards per carry during his first three seasons.

The Chargers didn’t re-up on Gordon like the Rams did on Gurley, and he faced playing under his fifth-year option for just $5.6 million. Gordon tried to hold out, only he came up empty and reported to the team in Week 5. Unable to get the extension he was looking for, Gordon signed a two-year, $16 million deal with the Denver Broncos last week.

David Johnson

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Nobody was expecting fourth-round pick David Johnson to be a star in this league so quick as the Arizona Cardinals had just signed Chris Johnson in free agency to be their new lead back. But the rookie took off running, and by the following season he total over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. He joined Zeke as the two running backs earning All-Pro honors that season.

Johnson served as good fodder for how it doesn’t take premiere draft capital to find a star running back in this league. But then things started to taper off for him as a wrist injury ended his season on the opening week of 2017. He did receive a three-year, $39 million extension with Arizona in 2018, but after two straight seasons where he averaged less than four yards a carry, the Cardinals decided to go a different direction. They were able to package him (and eat his $6 million dead money hit) with a couple draft picks in a deal that landed them Houston Texans star receiver DeAndre Hopkins.

For those keeping score at home, that’s four running backs who were once thought to be the games elite at the position, yet each of them were not retained by the team that drafted them. Some people will make a case that star running backs are fool’s gold, and that should serve as a strong warning about what lies ahead for the Cowboys and Zeke, but keep in mind - one of these is not like the other.

We know how things played out for these veterans, but with every failed moment comes new hope. And that is what a few other NFL teams are banking on with their star running backs.

Christian McCaffrey

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McCaffrey got off to a slow start running the ball as his 435 yards rushing his rookie season was third most on his team, behind Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. He did add 651 yards receiving so the Carolina Panthers weren’t wasting the player they selected eighth overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.

Each year, he’s gotten better and is now one of the most dynamic pass-catching backs in the league.

Alvin Kamara

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Kamara wasn’t drafted in the first round. In fact, he was the fifth running back selected in 2017 behind Leonard Fournette, McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, and Joe Mixon. Similar to McCaffrey, Kamara wasn’t the lead dog when he joined his team as the New Orleans Saints also had Mark Ingram who had over 1,000 yards rushing that year.

He took over the lead in touches the following season, but the Saints still implement a sizable timeshare as both Ingram and Latavius Murray had 150+ touches in each of the last two seasons. Kamara serves as another example of great talent at the running back position that doesn’t have to come so early, but you can pretty much say that about any position.

Saquon Barkley

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The New York Giants selected Barkley with the second overall pick in the 2018 draft. It was the highest draft resource spent on a running back since Reggie Bush was taken second overall in 2006. Barkley is a talented player and he’s a threat to take it to the house any time he gets in space.

Ezekiel Elliott

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The Cowboys used their fourth-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft to select Zeke. Many question the value of spending such a high draft resource on a running back, but Elliott has been a star ever since he entered the league. He earned All-Pro honors his rookie year, when he rushed for 1,631 yards, helping the Cowboys go 13-3 that season.

There are few things more consistent than Elliott. He’s averaged at least 1,350 yards in three of his four seasons, and it would’ve been all four if he wasn’t suspended for six games in 2017.

Elliott took matters in his own hands last offseason as he held out until he was able to get a contract extension. This is good news for Zeke, but is it good for the Cowboys. So far, he’s shown no signs of slowing down. And while things can change quickly in this league, Elliott appears to be a fixture on this team for a long time.

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