When the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, it was met with a lot of discord. On one hand, he was the most talented running back coming out of the draft and he would fit nicely into an offense that was built for running. But on the other hand, he was a running back. Teams don’t typically invest high draft capital in a position that is so easily interchangeable and where comparable talent can be found later in the draft.
Elliott hit the ground running. He had over 1,600 yards rushing his rookie season, including 15 rushing touchdowns. He came six yards away from 2,000 scrimmage yards. His 108.7 yards per game average was good enough to earn him first-team All-Pro as a 21-year-old rookie. The future looked bright for him.
The Cowboys continued to lean heavily on Elliott as he averaged over 20 rushing attempts per game in each of his first three seasons and had a three-year total of over 4,000 rushing yards. The dependence on Zeke caused the front office to blink first when Elliott held out prior to the 2019 season in search of a long-term deal. The team and Zeke finally agreed on a six-year, $90 million extension right before the regular season started.
Again, such a move by the Cowboys organization was met with much consternation. His production was great, but there was so much historical data that indicated that running backs eventually wear down and why should we believe Elliott was going to be the exception to the rule? And as it turns out, he isn’t.
Zeke is a fiery, competitive player who will lay everything out on the field for his football team, but passion and commitment cannot defy the physics of the human body. Elliott’s wear has been on display. His yards per game had declined in every year he’s been in the league. Let that sink in a bit. Every. Single. Year.
Here are his rushing stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
The Cowboys have wisely backed off his usage, which should’ve been easy to do with the addition of Tony Pollard in 2019. After averaging over 20 attempts per game in his first three seasons, his attempts dropped to 18 (2019), then 16 (2020), and then to 14 (2021). He averaged 15.4 attempts per game this past season. Not only did his usage drop, but his efficiency did as well. His yards per attempt have gradually gone from 5.1 his rookie season to a career-worst 3.8 this year. Additionally, Elliott’s efficiency dropped considerably as the season went on.
It’s worth noting that the running game in general declined when Terence Steele was lost for the season, but it’s clear that Tony Pollard still brings more juice to the offense. If they had to choose one or the other, the decision at this point is rather easy. It’s Tony Pollard.
Before we go any further, let’s run down Elliott’s current contract. It’s important to indicate that he has already been paid out all of his guaranteed money. He has no new money coming his way unless he’s on an NFL roster going forward. His base salary for subsequent years is shown below in blue (cap numbers courtesy of spotrac).
Another figure of importance is the amount of bonus/restructure money that still must be accounted for on the cap at some point (shown above in red). That amount is $11.86 million. There is no getting around that figure. That money has already been paid out and will cost the Cowboys regardless.
The only real question is, do the Cowboys keep paying Elliott his base salary for any of the remaining years of his contract? And that answer is no.
The Cowboys will not continue to pay such a hefty price for Elliott’s services. We know this because Elliott himself knows this. On Monday we learned that Zeke said he is willing to take a pay cut in order to stay with the Cowboys. This is expected. Elliott knows he’s not going to get his base salary amount on the open market, so he’s essentially negotiating for his next new contract. It’s not clear how low he’d be willing to go, but it’s probably not going to be low enough. The reason is the Cowboys can just go out and find a comparable rookie replacement in the 2023 draft for dirt cheap. This is where their running back cap resources should go. And if they have any plans to bring back the more explosive Pollard, then every penny counts.
You might ask yourself why the Cowboys would consider making the same mistake of re-upping in Pollard as they did with Elliott. That’s a fair question, but the situation is quite different. First, the wear on Pollard is far less. Tony’s 510 career rushing attempts are less than what Elliott had after just two seasons. And Pollard continues to rush over five yards per attempt even now, and has a four-year average that matches Elliott’s remarkable rookie season of 5.1 yards per attempt. In short, Pollard’s still got a lot of juice and it shows.
Also, Pollard can be re-signed and not be required to be a workhorse running back, extending his NFL life even further. The Cowboys can continue to pair him with another running back and still get the same type of production they got from him and Elliott.
We know the Cowboys’ organization loves Elliott, and many fans do too. He’s a great competitor who you love to have in the locker room. He has over $70 million in career NFL earnings and that’s an amazing achievement in a league where it’s rare to throw a lot of money at the running back position.
And sure, the Jones’ affinity for such a great dude may sway the pendulum into a reduced-pay restructure that keeps Zeke in Dallas. But from a roster-building perspective, that would be a mistake. The Cowboys have to maneuver through cap challenges due to the cost of the other players they have under contract, so they must be responsible with their money. Paying for Pollard’s explosive plays is one thing. But paying for Zeke’s declining production is another thing altogether. As much as we may love him, it’s time to move on.