Agent’s Take: Did Ezekiel Elliott Play His Last Game With Cowboys? Assess options for what Dallas should do

Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard formed arguably the best running back tandem in the NFL this season. The duo could be headed for a breakup. Pollard, who sustained a high ankle sprain and fractured left fibula during the Cowboys’ season that ended 12-19 against the 49ers in the divisional playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent.

Elliott doesn’t earn his keep. He’s been statistically trending in the wrong direction since becoming the first running back in league history to sign a $100 million contract. The two-time rushing champion signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension just before the start of the 2019 regular season, which made him the NFL’s highest-paid running back at $15 million a year after a lengthy preseason holdout to end. Elliott, who stayed with his rookie contact for two more years, set new standards for running backs with $50,052,137 in total guarantees and $28,052,137 fully guaranteed at signing.

The 2022 season was the worst of Elliott’s seven-year NFL career. He had 231 rushing attempts for 876 rushing yards at 3.8 yards per carry, all career lows. He caught 17 passes for 92 yards, which were among the worst of his career.

Elliott averaged a career-low 58.4 rushing yards per game. Before Elliott received his extension, he was averaging 101.2 rushing yards per game.

Pollard was Dallas’ most consistent and effective running back. He earned his first Pro Bowl spot by rushing for 1,007 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry, the third-ranked running back in the NFL. This was Pollard’s first 1,000-yard rushing season.

Pollard is the prime candidate for a franchise designation despite the injury. The non-exclusive franchise tag for running backs projects up to 4.489% of the salary cap. If the 2023 salary cap is set at $225 million, the running number should be $10.1 million.

Elliott is expected to earn $10.9 million in 2023 with a cap of $16.72 million. He has the second-biggest cap hit for a running back in 2023.

Teams rarely make a significant financial investment in two running backs at the same time. Pollard can certainly be kept long-term for less than the $52.9 million over the final four years of Elliott’s 2023-2026 contract.

A close look at Elliott’s salary

Elliott’s salary, cap and declining production have seriously threatened his roster spot, regardless of what happens to Pollard. The Cowboys would have $11.86 million in dead money, a salary cap for a player no longer on a team’s roster, and $4.86 million in savings by releasing Elliott the conventional way . That is without using a designation after June 1st.

In a release with a post-June designation, the Cowboys would have to carry Elliott’s full $16.72 million cap through June 2, though he would no longer be part of the roster. Elliott’s $10.9 million salary savings for 2023 would be off Dallas’ books at that point.

For players released after June 1st, only the current year’s bonus portion will count towards the cap. Acceleration of bonus portions in future contract years is deferred to the following league year, which typically begins in early to mid-March. Dead money would be taken over two years with $5.82 million in 2023 and $6.04 million in 2024 instead of all $11.86 million in league year 2023.

Elliott is reportedly open to a pay cut to stay with the Cowboys. “I want to be here,” he said after the playoff loss to the 49ers. “I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t tell you the future. But I definitely want to be here.”

A current blueprint of what might work: David Johnson

The only way the Cowboys should consider taking a pay cut at Elliott is by gaining more cap space than through a traditional release. This means Elliott’s salary would need to drop from $10.9 million to under $6.04 million in 2023.

The only recent example of a high-priced running back taking a pay cut is David Johnson with the Texans in 2021. Johnson should be the focus of the Texans’ offense after being acquired in an offseason trade in 2020, the All-Pro far sent receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Cardinals.

Johnson previously signed a three-year, $39 million extension (up to a maximum of $45 million through incentives) with $31,882,500 in guarantees hours before the Cardinals’ 2018 regular season opener. He fell out of favor with the Cardinals in the 2019 season after Kenya’s Drake was acquired as the trade deadline neared.

Johnson couldn’t revive his career with a change of scenery. He rushed for 691 yards in 12 games and caught 33 passes for 314 yards for a total of 1,005 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving yards combined) in his freshman season in Houston. It was a far cry from Johnson’s last highly productive season in 2016, when he led the NFL with 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns.

Johnson reduced his compensation for 2021 from $9 million to $5 million, with $4.25 million fully guaranteed in the final year of his contract. He had an opportunity to earn $1 million back through incentives based on his offensive play time and yards before scrimmage in the 2021 season.

Elliott would take a pay cut to the same $5 million as Johnson’s, a cut of almost 55%. His new 2023 cap of $10.82 million would imply a $5.9 million cap on a direct pay cut. All or most of the $5 million would have to be fully guaranteed. This could be accomplished by providing a $3.75 million roster bonus due a few days after signing the new contract, with the remaining $1.25 million being a fully guaranteed base salary.

More cap space for 2023 would be gained if Dallas agreed to add $2,812,500 to dead money when Elliott is eventually released in the future by making the $3.75 million a signing bonus , which will instead prorate toward the $937,500 annual salary cap for 2023-2026. Elliott’s cap would be $8,007,500, consisting of his new base salary of $1.25 million, $5.82 million in pre-existing bonus portions, and $937,500 in new bonus portions. Dallas would free up $8,712,500 of the Cap Room for 2023 this way.

What the cowboys should do

Most players want an opportunity to win back all the lost money with a pay cut through incentives. For Elliott to be healthy, he would need to do like his first season after signing his new contract when he was fourth in the NFL with 1,357 rushing yards, had 14 total touchdowns (fifth in the league) and was selected for the Pro Bowl for the third and final time of his career.

The Cowboys, who are making the switch from running backs coach Skip Peete, whose contract will not be renewed, may not bode well for Elliott’s pay cut prospects as the two are believed to be close. The wisest thing for the Cowboys would be to part ways with Elliott. Dallas seems to have reached a point where returns are declining.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones curiously announced in the middle of the season: “We go as Zeke goes”. Elliott’s best shot at a Dallas season 8 is if Jones still sincerely believes there is some truth to that statement. Agent’s Take: Did Ezekiel Elliott Play His Last Game With Cowboys? Assess options for what Dallas should do

Chris Estrada

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