The Cowboys just made a big decision on running back Tony Pollard. Monday saw the deadline for franchise tagged players come and go, and the Cowboys did not work out a long-term deal for Pollard, who has already signed the tag.
That means that Pollard, who will step into the top running back role in 2023 after the release of veteran Ezekiel Elliott, will make $10.1 million this year regardless of how many games he appears in. It also means Dallas won’t be able to negotiate a new contract with him until the conclusion of this season.
This is the perfect way for the Cowboys to have handled Pollard. It’s been well-established by now that the running back position is, by and large, the least valuable position on an offense. That isn’t to say that running backs truly don’t matter - there definitely is such a thing as a bad running back - but it’s much easier to find good running backs late in the draft or in the second or third wave of free agency than with any other position on offense.
That’s why the Cowboys were largely criticized for drafting Elliott fourth overall ahead of both Jalen Ramsey and Joey Bosa, both of whom are not only still in the NFL but playing at a very high level to this day. The Cowboys earned even more criticism when they made Elliott the highest paid running back in the NFL despite having Pollard - a cheaper and, at the time, equally efficient player. Four offseasons later, the Cowboys got out from that contract by cutting Elliott.
Now, they’re correcting their own mistakes and taking a smarter approach with Pollard now in Elliott’s shoes. Pollard just had a career year, and likely would’ve commanded plenty of suitors if he hit the open market, but there is also the issue of the running back coming off a high ankle sprain and fractured fibula that he suffered in the Cowboys’ final playoff game.
It’s unclear whether the injury factored into it or not, but Dallas opted not to commit to Pollard in the long run, and slapped him with the franchise tag. The cost of the tag - just over $10 million - is fairly steep for the position, but it’s still less than what Zeke was set to make. And Pollard, one of three running backs to get the tag this summer, is tied for the seventh highest salary in 2023 at his position.
So it’s not like the Cowboys are breaking the bank by paying him the franchise tag. In fact, it made the most financial sense to go this route. As Jeff Darlington of ESPN pointed out, the running back position is the only one in the NFL whose tag cost has actually gone down in the last decade:
The cost to franchise tag top running backs is just so low for teams to pass up. Consider:— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) July 17, 2023
QB tag in 2015 was $18.5m. Now $32.4m.
WR tag in 2015 was $12.8m. Now $19.7m.
RB tag in 2015 cost $10.9m. Now $10.1m!!!
While all other tag prices have risen… the RB tag has gone DOWN.
Like it or not, the position has been thoroughly devalued in the market, and teams just don’t pay top dollar for running backs anymore. That’s the way things are going now, and it ends up changing the way teams have to handle the approach for this position.
With the franchise tag price going down, that now makes it more sensible for teams to draft running backs wherever they see fit, ride them for four to five years on a rookie scale contract, and then use the tag to keep them around for one more year while drafting their successor and starting the cycle all over again.
Sound familiar? The Cowboys just tagged Pollard, and have now passed on signing him to a long-term extension, while also going out and drafting Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round this year. They’re now in a position where they can evaluate Pollard this season, especially after his injury and seeing how he adjusts to truly being the top dog in the position room, and go from there.
If Pollard continues to be the model of efficiency he’s been throughout his career, Dallas can always work out a new deal with him or even tag him again. But if Pollard takes a step back, or if Vaughn or someone else starts to flash, they can always initiate a changing of the guard. The Cowboys have all the options laid at their feet right now, which is always a good spot to be in. Their handling of Pollard and his contract situation deserves to be commended.