OXNARD, Calif. — Ever since the Dallas Cowboys signed Ezekiel Elliott to one of the worst running back contracts in recent history, it has felt as if a clock was ticking on his departure.
It also established a bit of training camp echo Wednesday, featuring a familiar storyline from a year ago. Something along the lines of: What can this team expect to get out of Ezekiel Elliott this season, and how much longer can it wait for him to live up to his elite salary?
The answer last season was promising early, until Elliott suffered a partially torn PCL in Week 4, triggering what eventually became a frustrating decline over the remaining three months of the schedule. Elliott remaining on the field through the injury, but he didn’t resemble anything close to his best level of play.
The result was an offseason amplification of two questions that were destined to weigh on Elliott the moment he signed his six-year, $90 million extension in 2019: How much longer can Elliott be an elite running back, and when does that answer come to a crossroads with his salary?
To some, that intersection is already here. And the result has been a training camp where it’s fair to question whether 2022 is the beginning of the end of his time in Dallas, a point he doesn’t seem to be pondering in spite of the questions orbiting around him.
“I think it’s a big season, but you can’t look too far down the road,” Elliott said of his future. “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.”
Will Zeke suffer the same fate as other big-money RBs?
Regardless of whether he’s thinking about it or not, the rationale questioning Elliott’s deal won’t be going away anytime soon. Partially because the Cowboys have another running back in Tony Pollard who has at times shown bigger play ability in more limited usage. Also because Elliott’s contract was seemingly set up for scrutiny from the start, thanks to a litany of elite running back deals transforming into franchise warts. It started with the constant backdrop of the Todd Gurley debacle with the Los Angeles Rams — which saw a four-year, $60 million extension turn into an unforgettable disaster for the franchise.
It didn’t stop there, with essentially all of Elliott’s other highly paid RB contemporaries struggling to live up to their deals. To date, the Carolina Panthers have failed to get a return on Christian McCaffrey’s four-year $64 million extension. Behind it, the Arizona Cardinals began trying to shed David Johnson’s three-year $39 million extension one season after he signed it. Even Alvin Kamara’s five-year $75 million extension from the 2020 season is already teetering on the edge of some criticism, given his health issues in 2021 and an off-field incident that could cost him a suspension this season.
All have been storylines supporting an ideology that has grown strong roots throughout the league. One that suggests running back windows should either be restricted to their rookie deals, after which extensions should be approached by driving a hard bargain and structuring a contract with an easy exit.
Dallas didn’t do that with Elliott, much to the chagrin of a fan base that has seemingly grown frustrated with a player whose best production came in his first four seasons and then faded after 2019. Now he enters 2022 with back-to-back seasons of injured or ineffective play and with Pollard pushing for more touches in the backfield.
Some of the circumstances surrounding Elliott haven’t helped at times, like Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury in 2020 and the offensive line implosion that followed. Elliott also played last season through a PCL injury, during which he could have shut himself down for a stretch rather than grinding out whatever he could while playing a thankless role of a top-shelf blocker in the backfield.
Contract will complicate Dallas’ decision
Simply being available isn’t going to change the reality of expectations this season, when Elliott is seemingly entering on a “bounce-back or else” measuring stick. At least, that’s how it appears. It’s worth noting that his economics aren’t as simple this offseason as they will be a year from now.
While the topic of Elliott’s potential release next offseason has already gained traction entering this camp, the numbers are not as cut and dried as it would seem. Yes, he carries a non-guaranteed base salary of $10.9 million in 2023. But he also has $11.86 million in various bonuses that would accelerate onto the salary cap as dead money if he’s traded or released next season.
On a base level, the money vs. talent question is simple. The Cowboys can get rid of Elliott and incur a cap charge of $11.86 million, or they can keep him and incur a cap charge of $16.72 million. Pressing those two numbers against each other, it comes down to whether Elliott is worth carrying an extra $4.86 million in 2023. And if he isn’t, what kind of player is replacing Elliott on the roster in 2023 for only $4.86 million.
“The question is whether he’s still in decline this year,” one league source said of Elliott. “He looks like a player in decline. If that’s who he is, then he might not be much more than a mediocre running back by the time you make that decision. If he kills it this year, then obviously you know the answer, because you’re not going to get a better player for [$4.86 million] to replace him. But if he declines again this year, it doesn’t matter how much money you save or not. At that point it’s better to just take the savings and move the opportunity to a player who can do more with it.”
That summation right there — that is the question the Cowboys have to grapple with.
How good can Elliott be in 2022, and what is the replacement cost in 2023? Those questions are about the next two seasons rather than just this one. Dallas knows this. And it’s why the coaching staff and front office keep using whatever language they can muster about why he’s still important to the team.
It’s why head of player personnel Stephen Jones says “nobody competes like Zeke,” as if that’s a data point that makes up for the gap between performance and pay.
It’s why head coach Mike McCarthy calls him a “keystone player” who does “all the extra little stuff,” largely because he knows Elliott is lacking the big statistical “stuff” that makes his salary easy to justify.
The Cowboys are looking for reasons to keep Elliott in the fold until he returns to a style of play that ultimately demands his spot in 2023. If he can do that, there is some financial sense to justify it. If he can’t, then he’ll have made the Cowboys’ decision for them, regardless of what’s to blame this time around.