We’ll start by getting this out of the way. Ezekiel Elliott is a very talented football player. He brings value to any team he is on. He is a durable running back, he is a fierce blocker in pass protection, and he can be a very productive player. The Cowboys are a better team with him on the roster, although the ability to replace him probably isn’t as hard as the Cowboys staff thinks it would be.
Elliott came into the league with some maturity issues, but he quickly transitioned into a pro and is among the leaders on the Cowboys roster. There is just a lot to like about Elliott, both professionally and personally. By all accounts he has an engaging personality that endears him to players and coaches alike.
But as we all know, there are some problems associated with Elliott. One is his declining production, the other is his outsized contract. We’ll leave the production issue for another day. The only thing we will say is that he was off to a fast start in 2021 until a knee injury slowed him down. And from what video is showing, and observers are saying, Elliott looks very good in training camp.
Still, that contract is an issue. Running backs are no longer the focal point of most offenses and instead are used as complementary players. Sure, there are exceptions (see Derrick Henry), and running backs who are dual-threats rushing and receiving also fit nicely in today’s NFL (think Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey). Elliott is capable of catching passes, but he’s not the fastest or most agile of running backs, so he doesn’t threaten defenses in that way at this stage of his career.
All of this is a long way of saying Elliott is a quality back who can help his team, but he shouldn’t be the highest paid running back in the game. Way back in 2019, the Cowboys made a mistake by handing Elliott a huge contract after he held out of training camp. That mistake haunts them to this day.
Just how miscalculated that contract was can be shown in a recent article from ESPN discussing the highest-paid players in the league at each position. They break their figures down by the highest three-year average, and highest guaranteed money. Elliott is second in average per year, and is first in guaranteed money.
Highest three-year APY:
1. Christian McCaffrey, $17.2 million
Signed: April 2020 (contract ends in 2025)
2. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL), $16 million
3. Alvin Kamara (NO), $12.7 million
Total guaranteed money:
1. Ezekiel Elliott, $50.05 million
Signed: September 2019 (contract ends in 2026)
2. Christian McCaffrey (CAR), $36.3 million
3. Alvin Kamara (NO), $34.3 million
There are a few things to take away from this. One is that you probably don’t want your running backs on the highest-paid list in general given how they are utilized in today’s NFL, and how easily they can be replaced by younger, fresher talent. If you got the highest paid quarterback in the league, that’s understandable. It’s the most important position on the team. Similar logic can be used on other positions that are far more valuable than running back like cornerback, edge pass rusher, left tackle, etc. Overpaying there makes sense, it doesn’t with running back. The Cowboys didn’t get that memo.
Another issue with Elliott’s contract is that it was so oversized at the time of its signing, that it is still at the top of guaranteed outlay even though it was done in 2019. That is an eon ago in NFL contracts. The ESPN article has 13 positions listed, and for each of those they have leaders in three-year average and guaranteed money. That is a potential of 26 contracts to examine, although in many cases the same contract is the leader in three-year average and guaranteed money. Still, in all the contracts listed as the highest, the contract for Elliott is the oldest.
That means that the Cowboys gave an oversized contract out to Elliott that still hasn’t been eclipsed by other teams for guaranteed money. And it’s not even close as Zeke got $14 million more guaranteed than the next back. In the NFL, generally the last star signed to a contract jumps to the top of the list, or very near. For instance, Dak Prescott was once at the top of quarterback pay, but recent contracts have rendered him a no-show on the quarterbacks list. Elliott’s contract is the oldest on the list of all the positions, and was only just edged out in three-year average by McCaffrey, who adds a lot in the passing game in addition to his rushing ability.
The Cowboys made a huge mistake in tying up that much of their salary cap in a position that doesn’t deserve it. It’s hard to blame Elliott for this, he just did what most NFL players do and that is maximize their earnings in a sport where players have a relatively short playing career. But the Cowboys really fumbled the ball on this one, and next year they can finally right the wrong, to some extent. They can never get back the years they were paying too much to the running back position in terms of percentage of salary cap, but they can learn from the mistake moving forward.