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Tony Pollard’s big day intensifies 2023 free agency dilemma

The Cowboys will have a huge decision to make about Tony Pollard this offseason.

Dallas Cowboys v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

It’s no secret that Cowboys running back Tony Pollard will be a free agent after this season. Now on pace to smash his career-highs in multiple categories, Pollard is only making Dallas’ decision that much harder in 2023 as it considers its future at running back.

Pollard matched his high of 131 rushing yards (originally set in 2019) and set a new one with three touchdowns in last Sunday’s win over the Chicago Bears. He already has 506 yards on the season and should fly past his current peak of 719 from last year. His five rushing touchdowns so far in 2022 are already a new single-season high.

Right now, the Cowboys have the luxury of enjoying both Pollard’s and Ezekiel Elliott’s services. But that is facilitated by Pollard still playing on his rookie contract and counting just $1.1 million against the 2022 salary cap. That blessing is soon coming to an end, and Dallas will then have to decide which back they want to keep going forward.

We all know how much the front office loves Elliott’s personality, marketability, and overall contributions. And so far this year, Zeke’s even looked closer to his former self despite his advancing NFL mileage and playing mostly in the Cooper Rush-led offense.

The one-two punch of Elliott and Pollard has worked because of how they’ve complemented each other, both on the field and on the financial books. But there’s no reasonable way that Dallas can preserve the tandem beyond this season.

There’s already been plenty of complaints about how much cap room has been tied up in just Elliott. Even if both he and Pollard took substantial discounts going forward, their combined compensation would still be well ahead of the $16.7 million that Zeke is scheduled to count against the 2023 cap.

Simply put, if the Cowboys want to keep Tony Pollard then they’re going to need Ezekiel Elliott’s money to do it.

If Dallas cuts Zeke outright next year then they will only create about $4.9 million in cap space. Making him a June-1st cut would create $10.9 million, but that money only becomes available after the prime free agent market has long since ended.

But beyond the pure cap math, you’d be dumping a 28-year-old back to invest in a 26-year-old one. If Pollard’s speed starts to decline at all in this next phase of his career, how long will he live up to whatever significant contract he receives? How long until the pitchforks currently pointed at Elliott turn Pollard’s way?

Some would love to see the Cowboys completely get out of the business of paying running backs big money on second contracts. They’d advocate letting Pollard walk, releasing Elliott, and drafting someone for another cheap run on a four-year rookie deal. Use the savings to bolster the offensive line and passing game and let whatever RB is lucky enough to play with them reap the rewards.

That approach sounds good on paper, but it ignores the human factor of the man calling the shots in Dallas. The owner who once hung wreaths around the neck of Emmitt Smith still values a star presence at the RB position and isn’t going to just hand it over to anyone.

Right now, Jerry Jones has two stars at running back. Hopefully, Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott will help elevate this offense and the team as a whole to glory in 2022. Because at this pace, there’s no way they are both still here next season.

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