The Dallas Cowboys have one of the top running back tandems in the league with Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard. Since Pollard joined the band, the Cowboys rushing attack has eclipsed 2,000 yards in two of his three seasons, with the lone exception being the 2020 season when Dak Prescott was hurt early on. Having both of these guys on the team is a luxury for the Cowboys, and most fans have conceded the idea that the 2022 season will mark the end of this dynamic duo.
Pollard is in the last year of his rookie contract, meaning he’ll hit free agency next offseason. Additionally, $18.2 million of Elliott’s remaining $30 million guaranteed money is off the books after the 2022 season, meaning the Cowboys will have a potential out in his contract. All this is to say, the Cowboys will have a tough decision next year when it comes to the direction they want to go at running back. The team won’t be able to afford both, so which will it be, continue to roll with Elliott, or hand the keys to Pollard?
Recently, Pollard has been identified as a potential breakout player for the 2022 season. The fourth-round pick from 2019 is coming off a career year in yards (719) and yards per carry (5.5). He saw a 31% uptick in total touches last year and that turned out to be a good thing as his total yards from scrimmage increased from 628 to 1,056 yards (68%). Word out of camp is that more touches for Pollard are coming in 2022. This could mean an even bigger year for the team’s young running back.
There’s a case to be made for moving on from Elliott and going with Pollard for the future. Pollard has been the more efficient running back on a per touch basis and he only has one-fifth the mileage on him compared to Zeke. Not only that, but Pollard’s price tag should be far cheaper than what Elliott would command going forward as Zeke’s base salaries over the subsequent four years are $10.9 million (2023), $10 million (2024), $15.4 million (2025), and $16.6 million (2026).
If the Cowboys are considering Pollard as their future featured back, would it be wise for them to get out in front of this and get him extended prior to the start of the upcoming season?
The way we see it, they have three options when it comes to who’s running the ball for the Cowboys after the 2022 season.
- Keep Elliott, let Pollard walk in free agency
- Re-sign Pollard, release Elliott
- Release Elliott, let Pollard walk in free agency, and draft new running backs in 2023
The team hopes Elliott will be healthy and run as he did in the first part of the year last season. His durability is unquestioned as he’s only missed one game due to injury which is rare for a running back who’s been in the league for six years. The team is already committed to Elliott for the upcoming season, so that could tell them if they feel he’s worth additional financial investment going forward. Remember, Elliott’s base salary for 2023 and 2024 is roughly five million cheaper than the final two years of his deal (figures courtesy of spotrac.com).
The reason we bring this up is that the only important numbers from Elliott’s contract are those yearly base salary figures. All the signing bonus/option/restructure money has already been paid out and will hit the Cowboys cap regardless of anything else. So, when evaluating if the team should retain Elliott for years beyond the upcoming season, it’s those numbers that matter.
That brings us back to Pollard. Estimating what type of contract he could command shouldn’t be that difficult. He falls into a category that mimics several other “change of pace” backs who many have proclaimed could be a starter elsewhere. This includes players like Chase Edmonds, Kenyon Drake, Nyheim Hines, or Duke Johnson. They all signed deals for an annual salary that cost roughly three percent of their year’s respective salary cap. That would put Pollard’s new deal at roughly $7 million per season, making him right on the cusp of being in the top 10 paid for the running back position.
Is it possible that Pollard has a breakout season? Sure, it’s possible. But for that to happen, it’s likely going to take the ever-resilient Elliott missing some time. In that scenario, Pollard is going to have to stand out without the luxury of having fresh legs. Who’s to say Pollard’s efficiency doesn’t take a hit when he’s asked to carry a heavier workload? Not to mention, Elliott’s a much better pass protector which is easy to forget about until it’s suddenly not there. A more likely scenario is we continue to see a good dose of Zeke with a little more Pollard mixed in.
If Elliott shows more signs of wearing down, then it would be hard to justify continuing to shell out that kind of money for his services. At that point, the Cowboys may very well choose to go with Pollard as their guy next year, but there is nothing gained by extending him early. A good season may inflate his future cost, but it will be small compared to the information they’d receive by waiting.