The Dallas Cowboys have a decision to make about Ezekiel Elliott. It’s not the one about releasing him after the 2022 season because of his contract numbers. They have an out after 2022 and they just might use it to get some cap relief and quit paying top dollar to a position that doesn’t really deserve top dollar. But that’s about a year away.
The other decision they have to make about Elliott comes this fall when they must decide how much playing time to give him this season, and how much they should give to Tony Pollard. Over at ESPN, Bill Barnwell did a deep-dive into the expectations around a few high-priced running backs for the 2022 season, and Elliott was included.
First he notes that the Cowboys have become much less of a running team recently and are now more in line with passing averages around the NFL. He observes that the reason for that may be the declining production of Elliott.
You might argue the Cowboys have leaned more on the pass because Elliott has been less efficient as a runner. This would appear to be true. We have four years of RYOE data, and he has declined in each of those years. He posted 0.5 RYOE per carry in 2018, when he led the league in carries, touches and rushing yards. That mark fell to 0.4 in 2019, 0.1 in 2020 and dropped below the average mark to minus-0.1 in 2021. His yards-per-carry marks have bounced around, but the advanced metrics hint at a more worrisome trend.
There have been arguments made that the decline in Elliott’s production can be attributed to a decline in offensive line play for the Cowboys. It is pretty much inarguable that the Cowboys offensive line is not as good as it was in the early seasons of Elliott’s career. So that all makes sense until you look at what Pollard has been doing with the same offensive line.
The problem with blaming the context around Elliott, though, is that there’s another back who shouldered a meaningful workload in Dallas a season ago. Tony Pollard carried the ball 130 times to Elliott’s 237. Next Gen’s model suggests Pollard was placed in beneficial situations, as his average rush was expected to generate 4.8 yards per carry, a figure topped only by Miles Sanders and Darrell Henderson Jr. Even given those higher expectations in terms of where and when he carried the ball, Pollard simply blew Elliott’s performance out of the water.
Pollard has been more explosive than Elliott over his first three seasons in the league, but in 2019 and 2020, Elliott was a more reliable option. Elliott’s success rate and FDOE marks topped those of Pollard. Pollard’s yards per carry were better than his backfield mate’s, but you could have made a case for Elliott remaining as the primary runner. There are no arguments to be made after last season.
The Cowboys have been slowly working Pollard into more of the running game over the last few years. Probably a little too slowly for many fans tastes, but they are making strides having the carries be more even. In 2019, Elliott had roughly 78% of the touches, in 2020 he had 70%. Last year Elliott was at 62% of carries so the trendline is going in the right direction if you want Pollard to get more touches.
Barnwell argues that Pollard should be in the lead role but notes that it’s unlikely the Cowboys will do that. With the money they are paying Elliott, along with their belief that his pass-blocking ability is a key factor, the Cowboys will likely keep going with Zeke as the main option. They rarely admit that they made a mistake in a contract signing.
Even so, Barnwell predicts a year where Zeke is used less than ever.
Projection for 2022: 180 carries for 802 yards and 8 TDs; 39 catches (58 targets) for 253 yards and 1 TD