Now that the NFL has released the official amounts for franchise tags and other offseason maneuvers, we can start talking specifics about potential offseason roster moves for the Dallas Cowboys. A focal point in 2023 will be at running back, with Tony Pollard’s free agency and Ezekiel Elliott’s contract both looming large among the teams’ impending decisions.
But for the lower leg injury that he suffered in Dallas’ playoff loss to the 49ers, Pollard had his best season to date. He crossed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, crushed his previous career high with 12 total touchdowns, and maintained a 5.2 average per carry despite a greatly increased workload. Few runners in 2022 could claim to be more effective than Pollard, and that's especially impressive given the Cowboys’ offensive line issues last year.
With a recovery timetable from his injury that doesn’t even go into training camp, Pollard’s value in free agency shouldn’t suffer much. Turning 26 in April, Pollard should still be one of the hottest options available if the Cowboys let him hit the open market.
Now that we know the franchise tender for running backs will cost just $10.09 million in 2023, Dallas may not even let Pollard become a free agent. It’s the cheapest franchise tender of any offensive or defensive position. With TE Dalton Schultz assuredly not getting franchised for a second year, which would cost somewhere around $13-$14 million, Pollard presents the most logical use of the tag.
Still, that would bump Pollard’s cap hit significantly from the mere $1.13 million he cost the team in 2022. How can Dallas carve out that extra $9 million, roughly, to keep their best running back in-house next season?
For one, the 2023 salary cap will increase $16.6 million from last year. But when you start looking throughout the roster at other contracts and general annual inflation, that increase gets eaten up fairly quickly. As such, even with that league-wide bump, Dallas is still projected to be about $5-$7 million over the cap based on current contracts.
Now that number is going to change a lot over the month-and-a-half. The Cowboys have yet to engage various built-in measures to clear cap space on contracts like Dak Prescott’s, Zack Martin’s, and DeMarcus Lawrence’s which will give them spending power. There are also potential cap casualties coming such as Tyron Smith, Jourdan Lewis, and others.
This is where the question of how to keep Tony Pollard circles back to Ezekiel Elliott. If the Cowboys want to limit the impact of franchising Pollard to just the RB position, they can do it by making Zeke a June-1st cut. That would create $10.9 million in cap space and cover Pollard’s franchise tag, with about $900k to spare.
That extra money could go to a mid-round draft pick at RB. In 2022, for example, WR Jalen Tolbert counted $933k against the cap as a third-round pick. If Pollard is returning as the featured back, drafting a replacement for Elliott in the third or fourth round would seem a logical move. It would put an asset in place in case Pollard doesn’t come back in 2024.
The Cowboys do still have Malik Davis under contract for 2023 at $870k, which is a bargain if he’s going to move into a larger backup role. Rico Dowdle is an unrestricted free agent and likely won’t be tendered. His injury history means he’ll either come back on a minimal deal or Dallas will just move on to new projects.
There are other potential scenarios to consider. For one, Pollard could agree to a multi-year deal that lowers his cap hit and gives him a few years of security. If reports that Elliott is willing to take a pay cut to stay in Dallas are true, it is entirely possible that both he and Pollard could stick around next year.
The key here is that $10 million franchise tag figure. It gives the Cowboys considerable leverage in contract talks with Pollard, mitigating the market price of $15-$16 million set by recent deals like Elliott’s, Alvin Kamara’s, and Christian McCaffrey’s.
Dallas does have some incentive to work out a longer deal with Pollard, though, as it gives them room to convert salary into bonus money and free up additional cap space. That option doesn’t exist with the franchise tender; the full amount hits your cap with no room for adjustment.
There’s still so much to be realized about how the Cowboys are going to approach this offseason. If they’re confident that a bolstered offensive line could make all running backs more effective, maybe they’ll let Pollard walk and invest elsewhere. Some things we just won’t know until after we’ve seen the plan executed.
But if Dallas is committed to keeping Tony Pollard for at least one more year, it’s become all the more possible by the franchise tag option. We’ll soon see if the Cowboys use this method to secure Pollard’s services, either directly or perhaps as a negotiating point in a long-term contract.