March 21st, 2021.
That is a day that will live in infamy in the history of the Dallas Cowboys as it signifies a commitment between the front office and their star running back Ezekiel Elliott. Okay, maybe not live in infamy as that might be overselling it a bit, but it did serve as a moment of great frustration for many fans as it marked when Zeke’s 2022 base salary became fully guaranteed. By now, fans are well aware of the implications of that decision as the Cowboys are facing the single biggest cap hit they’ve ever endured for a running back in their long-tenured history. That figure stands at $18.2 million.
Up until this season, the Cowboys have actually gotten a bargain for Elliott. That’s right, a bargain. His total cap cost for his first six seasons in the league was only $40.5 million which averages out to just $6.75 million per season. That’s a bargain.
But the price of doing business is going up starting this season. Because of the before-mentioned March 21st deadline a year ago, the Cowboys are financially obligated to account for another $30 million against their cap whether he plays another year or not because that’s how much of his remaining contract is guaranteed. That is why the Cowboys gain nothing by releasing Elliott.
To summarize, the cap cost to the Cowboys for rostering Ezekiel Elliott is:
- $40.5 million for the first six years
- $30 million for season seven
We chose to frame it that way to illustrate how the Cowboys' front office has paid for Elliott by pushing his cap hit downstream. It’s been financially advantageous for the organization up until this point, but it has abruptly gotten real expensive. While Elliott’s actual cap hit for the upcoming season is $18.2 million, as stated above, we are including his remaining bonus money and calling it $30 million because many of us believe this could be the final season of Elliott’s career in Dallas. If that is in fact true, it will cost the team $30 million of total cap space for that final season regardless of how it ultimately becomes spread out.
What the Cowboys do after this upcoming season is completely up to them as they will have a little more flexibility. After 2022, only $11.8 million of his bonus money will remain unaccounted for and the team will need to decide if they are ready to pay his bill or would like to keep his account open by retaining his services. If they choose the latter, it would cost the Cowboys the following amounts:
- 2023 - add on another $10.9 million
- 2024 - add on another $10 million
- 2025 - add on another $15.4 million
- 2026 - add on another $16.6 million
Do you see the Cowboys continuing to add this pricy expense to their yearly cap bill? The answer should be no, and this season should mark the beginning of the end of Elliott’s time in Big D. Zeke is a great competitor and he does a lot of things he often doesn’t get the credit for, but we have to be honest with ourselves when we examine what those high-mileage legs can offer the team compared to his cost. The Cowboys would be better suited looking for a more financially responsible way to supplement their rushing attack.
The front office of the Los Angeles Rams has received a lot of praise as of late for how they go about building their roster. The Rams have been foregoing premium draft capital to acquire proven players, and they retain those players by constructing contracts that push those heavy costs into the future. Going outside the organization and backloading deals is not uncommon as many teams do this and many fail miserably because they overestimate the talent of their team (like say, the New York Giants). The Rams are a good team and know it, so their gambles have paid off for them.
While the debate of how a front office should operate is not the discussion of this article, we wanted to bring up the Rams here because of how they chose to cut their losses with their former star running back Todd Gurley. After signing him to a four-year extension in 2018 worth almost $60 million, the Rams saw a noticeable decline in production after his fifth season. The Rams reacted swiftly and got out of his deal before future earnings became guaranteed.
The same fifth-year decline was present will Elliott, but the Cowboys remain steadfast with the belief that he is their guy. His yards per game continued to fall last season in year six and he’s back for more this year with already nearly 2,000 total touches under his belt.
The Rams mitigated the loss of Gurley by selecting a couple of Day 2 running backs in the following two drafts (Darrell Henderson and Cam Akers), and they even reloaded this year by selecting a Day 3 running back (Kyren Williams). If the Cowboys want to mirror Los Angeles in any fashion it would be to follow this same type of process in finding low-cost running back production.
It’s tiring listening to all the “great” moves the Rams have made recently and to be honest, not a lot of positive things were being said about them until they won the big game. And while some fans (raises hand) prefer the Cowboys' build-through-the-draft and frugal free-agent spending approach over the Rams’ all-in approach, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be learned from them. And how they handle the running back position would be a good place to start.