Over the past six seasons, there haven’t been many more prominent or prolific players for the Dallas Cowboys than running back Ezekiel Elliott. Since the Cowboys took the former Ohio State star with the fourth overall pick in 2016, Elliott has gained 7,386 yards on the ground. He has topped 1,000 rushing yards four times—including last year. He has led the league in rushing twice. Been named to three Pro Bowls. And scored 68 total touchdowns.
With the exception of quarterback Dak Prescott, Elliott has been as much the face of the franchise as anyone. He’s a superstar.
But the life of a running back in the NFL can be a harsh one. All those yards have taken a toll on the 27-year-old. His lofty salary is taking a toll on the Cowboys’ salary cap. And as Elliott gets ready for his seventh season in Dallas, there’s a very real chance this Cowboy will be gone come spring.
Now, you won’t hear the Cowboys talking about Elliott’s days in Dallas being numbered. While speaking to reporters at training camp, team owner Jerry Jones told reporters that while Dallas needs to get fellow running back Tony Pollard more involved offensively, Elliott remains the straw that stirs the drink for the Cowboys in the backfield:
“We gotta have Tony Pollard out there. No, seriously, Zeke’s gotta be our feature, and he is our feature. We can feature him in a lot of different ways. We all recognize what he does in the passing game because of his protection ability. Don’t ever underestimate that especially with Zeke. Zeke takes some tolls when he’s out there as a back blocking. So it’s critical that we make Zeke — because he’s capable of being that — really the focus of what we’re doing. Now then, Pollard, there’s plenty of room for Pollard. There’s plenty of room for Pollard when Zeke’s in there. Pollard needs to get the ball.”
It’s true that Elliott is one of the best pass-blocking backs in the NFL. And he got his on the ground last year as well—Elliott’s 1,002 rushing yards ranked seventh in the league. He scored 10 touchdowns on the ground, caught the ninth-most passes (47) among running backs and helped power the Cowboys to 12 wins and an NFC East title.
Per the team’s website, Elliott said he expects the ground game to be the offense’s catalyst this season.
“If we can run the ball efficiently and control the line of scrimmage, we’ll be that much better of an offense,” Zeke said. “That’s the type of tone I try to set every time I step on the field, period.”
That’s all well and good. In fact, Elliott may well be right; with wide receiver Amari Cooper gone and fellow wideouts Michael Gallup and James Washington set to miss time to open the season, Prescott and the Cowboys may have to lean on Elliott and the ground game even more than usual this season.
But a heavier workload for Elliott in 2022 would just be one more reason to move on in the offseason.
The first reason is an enormous black cloud looming over the franchise: Elliott’s abomination of a contract.
In 2019, the Cowboys signed Elliott to a massive six-year, $90 million contract extension. Even some three years later, it remains the largest pact for a player at his position by $15 million over New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara. His $15 million average annual salary is tied with Kamara for the second-highest in the league among backs. The $28 million and change in guarantees trails only Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants. After restructuring the deal to help create cap space, Elliott carries a staggering $18.2 million cap hit for 2022.
That’s a cap-wrecking number for a running back. There are some positions where most teams budget for big deals. Quarterbacks make a fortune. So do elite cornerbacks, edge-rushers and offensive tackles. But more teams than not look to keep costs low at running back. The money going to Elliott is money that can’t be used to attract other players or re-up Dallas’ own. It’s part of the reason Cooper was dumped in the offseason.
Elliott’s cap hit in 2023 isn’t much better—$16.7 million. But where $12.4 million of his 2022 money is guaranteed, none of next year’s is. Dallas could shave over $10 million off the cap by saying goodbye to Elliott in the offseason.
That’s hardly a state secret, but Elliott told reporters last month that he’s focused on the upcoming season and not what comes after it:
“I think it is a big season, but I think you can’t look too far down the road. I think if I focus on every day, if I focus on having a good day of camp, if I focus on taking it week by week, I think everything will handle itself. And I don’t think there’s really a reason to look that far down the road. I think if I handle my business every day, then I’ll be in a pretty good situation at the end of the season.”
The problem with that statement is that while Elliott may still handle his business, he doesn’t do so as well as he once did.
In his rookie season, Elliott led the league in carries with 322, paced the NFL in rushing with 1,631 yards and ranked fifth among all running backs with over 100 attempts at 5.1 yards per carry. In 2018, he again led the league in attempts (304) and rushing yards (1,434) but averaged 4.7 yards a carry—17th in the league.
Fast-forward to 2021, and while Elliott got past the 1,000-yard mark, it was just barely. He averaged just 4.2 yards per carry last season—28th in the NFL.
As a rookie, Elliott gained 108.7 yards per game on the ground—tops in the league. That number has since dropped each and every year. Last year, it was down to 58.9 yards per game—17th in the NFL.
This isn’t to say that Elliott isn’t still a good running back. But he hasn’t played like a great running back the past couple of years. It looks like 1,938 career touches and all those pass-pro reps have taken a toll. Elliott just hasn’t displayed the explosiveness in recent seasons that he possessed in earlier years.
Add in that Dallas also has to make a decision on whether to re-sign Pollard, who is younger and averaged 1.3 more yards per carry in his first season with 1,000 total yards in 2021, and just about every sign points to this being the end of the line for Elliott in Dallas.
Maybe it won’t be. Maybe Elliott will be amenable to a pay cut to stay with his buddy from the class of 2016. But that’s not likely.
The Cowboys badly need all the cap space they can get with extensions for the likes of CeeDee Lamb and Micah Parsons coming. The team has a replacement back already on the roster in Pollard. And as great as Elliott has been, he’s not the player he once was.
This ride is all but certainly coming to an end. Like it or not, after the 2022 season, Ezekiel Elliott is going to ride off into the sunset.
Every Cowboy does sooner or later.
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