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What Ezekiel Elliott’s list of preferred teams tells us about Cowboys current backfield

Wondering where the former Cowboys running back will land in free agency.

NFL: NFC Divisional Round-Dallas Cowboys at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The free agency market for former Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has yet to develop, with the 27-year old fourth overall pick becoming available after backs like Miles Sanders, Devin Singletary, Damien Harris, and David Montgomery have already found new teams.

Elliott’s list of preferred teams includes playoff contenders in both conferences though, with this report on Thursday that Elliott is looking to the Jets, Bengals, and...wait for it...rival Philadelphia Eagles.

While most Cowboys fans are in agreement with the team’s decision to feature Tony Pollard as their new lead back, complimenting him with Malik Davis, Rico Dowdle, and veteran free agent acquisition Ronald Jones, the idea of seeing Elliott on the schedule twice in Philadelphia green is an uncomfortable one.

The Cowboys have been aggressive in their roster building so far this offseason, and the Eagles surpassing them in the NFC East and reaching the Super Bowl with similar tactics is just part of the motivation. The Eagles want to keep their championship window open with Jalen Hurts at quarterback, and a strong running game may be the best way to do so. Kenneth Gainwell is now their top option after Sanders signed with the Panthers, but the Eagles also brought back short-yardage back Boston Scott on a one-year deal.

Scott’s role as a goal line back and pass protector isn’t just an insight into how teams view Elliott, but how the Cowboys are planning for life without him as well. If the Eagles are reportedly less interested in Elliott now that they retained Scott, the Cowboys filled a similar void with Ronald Jones.

Jones can give the Cowboys a veteran presence in the backfield, running with the power and burst between the tackles Elliott gave them in his prime. Dallas brought in Jones on a one-year $1.23 million deal, with Elliott’s price tag and potential length of deal still to be determined.

The Eagles aren’t the only team that potentially see some value in a situational back like Elliott, with the Bengals and Jets also needing more balance in their run game. Joe Burrow had the fifth most passing attempts in the NFL last season for the Bengals, while Joe Mixon led them in carries with 210 for 814 yards. Mixon and Elliott would give Cincinatti a diverse backfield, with Elliott’s pass pro potentially being the most welcome as they look to keep Burrow upright.

The Cowboys are relying on their offensive line development to do the same with Prescott more than their backfield, though Jones can certainly help here. The added benefit of having Pollard on the field for passing downs and giving Prescott another checkdown option puts the Cowboys more in line with the trend around the league of featuring backs that can do it all.

This certainly applies to the last team on Elliott’s shortlist, the New York Jets - still very much in play to trade for Aaron Rodgers. With Rodgers understandably wanting to play for a contender at this point in his career, the Jets already have a group of talented receivers with former Packer Allen Lazard joining them in free agency, and could upgrade the backfield considerably with Elliott. Whether it’s Rodgers, Zach Wilson, or another veteran under center for them, the Jets have been trying to figure out the QB position for some time, but need more than just Breece Hall in the backfield to create a positive situation for any passer.

The Jets allowed 24 points or less in all six of their AFC East games, but didn’t have the offense to turn it into a playoff berth. By being able to sustain drives on the ground, they can lean on this defense the same way Dallas is with Dan Quinn. The Cowboys may not be doing so with the bellcow running back model as much anymore, but are transitioning to a more West Coast style offense under Mike McCarthy that should help give Prescott the easy completions that turn into extensions of the run game with top-end quarterbacks.

It will likely take more than just the Eagles, Bengals, and Jets interest for Elliott to land with a new team, but how the league feels about a back the Cowboys handed off to 1,881 times in seven seasons is coming into picture. For the first time in years, the Cowboys have aligned themselves with other contenders and trend-setters around the NFL, getting more dynamic in the backfield while still finding their veteran back on an incredibly team-friendly deal.

All that’s left to be determined is whether or not the Cowboys will play against Elliott in 2023 with the Jets on the schedule (enticing a potential Mike McCarthy vs. Aaron Rodgers rematch) as well as the yearly home-and-home with the Eagles.

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