Pay Ezekiel Elliott.
That’s it. That’s the article.
If only it were that easy, right? That’s actually not the entire column at all, because it’s clear not everyone understands how the valuation of NFL players is supposed to work — forcing me to gleefully expound upon my point. The 24-year-old running back is arguably the best in all of football at his position and has been since being selected fourth-overall by the Dallas Cowboys in 2016. In only three short years, Elliott has landed two NFL rushing titles along with two All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods, and he’s averaging 101.2 rushing yards per game for his career, while his 4,048 career rushing yards and 5,247 career yards from scrimmage have also led him to a myriad of broken franchise records.
By the by, he’s done all of this despite being sidelined for six games in 2017, and likely would’ve pulled off the hat trick for each of his honors if not for the suspension.
My colleague Jared Dubin.
The devaluation narrative
Yes, theoretically speaking, running backs are less valuable than say, a quarterback or a wide receiver. It is a pass-happy league now, obviously, but the problem is one size doesn’t fit all. The Cowboys are most definitely the exception to the rule, because they’re designed as a run-first offense whose goal is to wear opponents down with time of possession. As a matter of fact, they’re still running a playbook that includes plays from Ernie Zampese — the team’s offensive coordinator from 1994-1997 whom current head coach Jason Garrett studied under as backup QB at the time. You can expect more misdirection and trickery from newly-promoted offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, but the playbook and the offensive schemes remain the same, and that means having a halfback that isn’t simply a generational talent, but also a potential Hall of Famer in the making.
Thanks to Elliott, the Cowboys have been able to win games at what they want to do, which is to keep the time of possession in their favor. That offensive plan often bleeds over into the success of the defense, keeping them fresh later in games as opposed to the contrary. In 2016 and 2018, when Elliott was on the field for the entire season, the Cowboys ranked second and fifth in time of possession, respectively, and it’s no coincidence they won the NFC East in both of those seasons.
Elliott played in only 10 games in 2017, and the Cowboys missed the playoffs.
No Elliott equals an offensive offense
A deeper dive reveals the defense allowed more points per game in 2017 as well, going from fifth-best in that category in 2016 to 13th-best the next season, before finishing sixth-best in 2018. Offensively, with Elliott sidelined for the aforementioned six games in 2017, the Cowboys went 3-3 after a 5-3 start, and their offensive points per game did a faceplant into a waterless pool — going from 28.25 ppg weekly to just 18.33 points on average. Also, the team’s rushing production dropped by nearly 29 yards per game. Having also been without All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith for the first two games of the Elliott-less stretch didn’t help, obviously, but Smith returned to battle the Chargers on Thanksgiving, and the Cowboys were still mauled to the tune of 28-6.
When you remove a player that averages 5.2 yards per touch and whose 354 touches were the second-most in the NFL the year prior, the end result isn’t going to be unpredicatable. The Cowboys didn’t scale back on Elliott in 2018, either, instead heaping more work onto his capable shoulders and he ended the year with a league-most 381 touches — racking up 2,0001 scrimmage yards in the process. Very capable of delivering just as many touchdowns as Todd Gurley does for the Los Angeles Rams, Elliott was hampered by red zone woes that plagued the team under now-departed offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, to the point the All-Pro was often removed from the field after being a catalyst for getting the offense in position to score.
Elliott’s frustration wasn’t made public, but it was well-known in private, and that’s Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden should’ve put up All-Pro numbers in 2015, and Elliott wouldn’t have been given a Cowboys’ uniform the next year.. When also considering the Cowboys’ passing offense ranked 23rd in the league in 2018 (221.1 ypg), 26th in 2017 (196.3) and 23rd in 2016 as well when Elliott delivered 1,994 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns as a rookie — any argument that claims he’s just another RB becomes laughable. If that were the case,
They weren’t, so he was, and here we are.
The true value of Elliott
His unbridled value to the team on the whole is why the Cowboys made the expected move to exercise Elliott’s fifth-year option, one that secures him through the 2020 season. That still left the question of just when they’ll pull the trigger on his looming extension, however, something that was never initially likely to occur ahead of quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, because both of their contracts expire after 2019. Per a source with knowledge of the situation, Elliott privately voiced his displeasure to the team as early as January 2019, hoping to make it clear he needed assurances the club wanted him around for the longterm and weren’t simply providing lip service to the media.
When Prescott and Cooper opted to wave off their contract offers and instead let the market continually boost their value, Elliott saw a great chance to be the one who stepped to the table ready to eat. With $24.5 million in current cap space and the potential of lowering Cooper’s cap hit of $13.9 million with an extension, it seems a no-brainer for the Cowboys to pay the one who isn’t simply playing the market — because Elliott is, in fact, the market at his position. With the Cowboys aiming more at Le’Veon Bell’s contract — a four-year, $52.5 million deal with $35 million guaranteed — it’s a change-of-course over what was said by the front office early in the offseason.
It was at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis when team exec Stephen Jones made it clear that the “starting point” for contract talks with Elliott was the Todd Gurley deal, which was a four-year extension worth $60 million with $45 million guaranteed. Now, in August, the same Jones is claiming it was Bell who truly set the market — a u-turn that leaves roughly $10 million in guaranteed money on the curb. Elliott is also a three-down back that can function as a dynamic pass weapon, and he’s the best pass blocker that isn’t an offensive lineman. That’s basically three players in one, which allows the Cowboys to free up additional roster spots as opposed to looking for three players that can (maybe) do each of those three things.
There’s several reasons Prescott loves him so, and one is because Elliott helps keeps his QB from being planted like a tent spike.
Beam him down, Scotty
Furthering Elliott’s stance is the simple fact that on the field, when looking at all things controllable, he’s equal or greater than Gurley — be it with potential or actual production. Gurley has offensive-guru Sean McVay to keep his yardage and TD tally in the stratosphere, but Elliott was force-fed a steady diet of Linehan, and anyone who thinks McVay and Linehan are comparable should make reservations for a padded room. When Elliott was drafted in 2016, it was with the goal of excelling in tandem with Tony Romo, but he’s now become the thing opposing offenses fear most, and scheme to stop. Opposing players have openly admitted no fear of Prescott, and while that may change in 2019, it hasn’t until it does.
And yet, even against stacked boxes and a constantly changing offensive line that has included everything from a rookie to players who were previously on someone else’s practice squad before landing in North Texas, and even without perennial All-Pro Travis Frederick at center in 2018 — Elliott continues to be one of the best in the NFL in yards after contact and 51.8% of his rushing yards in 2018 came after someone tried to bring him down. Only Gurley and Saquon Barkley bested those numbers, but both fell behind Elliott in several other categories.
So much for Elliott being a “product of the offensive line.”
No romance without finance
What the Cowboys will and have readily confessed is that Elliott is the “straw that stirs the drink” in Dallas, and Emmitt Smith agrees fully — consistently lobbying for the team to “do the right thing” and pay Elliott commensurate with his contributions to the win column. The all-time NFL rushing leader, Ring of Honor inductee and Hall of Famer knows a little something about special talent when he sees it, and he’ll be the first to tell you Elliott has it in spades.
His numbers are either comparable or better than those delivered by the legendary Tony Dorsett and Smith himself with compared to the first three seasons of their respective careers, and Elliott has already achieved an eye-opening 22% of Smith’s magical 18,355 rushing yards — despite the suspension. In plain English (and math), Elliott is on track to finish his NFL career in the company of both Smith and Tony Dorsett, if not surpassing both outright at some point.
This is talent you pay. Haggle with middle-of-the-roster guys and incoming free agents, but not cornerstone players like Elliott.
The Cowboys have a business mantra that reads “pay your own,” but the fine print beneath that billboard should read “but we’re not going to make the negotiations easy.” That’s something Lawrence learned the hard way in 2019 and others before him found out in seasons past, but this is Elliott’s first-ever NFL negotiation, and he’s up against a master in the Joneses.
The Cowboys would love to sell Elliott on how he should accept less money than Gurley, and despite additional concerns over Gurley’s durability versus the lack of concern in that area on Elliott, but the reality is the latter outpaced the former in both rushing and yards from scrimmage without getting a fair shot in the red zone and despite a piecemeal offensive line.
The bottom line
Are there issues off the field to clean up? Absolutely, but there’s also evidence to support Elliott’s maturation in that area — despite recent headlines. If you’ll note, there weren’t any in the offseason of 2018, but with a contract negotiation currently ongoing, the Pandora’s Box has seemingly been opened.
Call it a money-grab from alleged victims of phantom shoves and $20 million fender benders, if you want. Call it a conspiracy theory from the Cowboys to obtain more leverage on Elliott as they try to shave his contract numbers. Call it whatever you like, but when you’re done, make sure the Cowboys call Elliott with an offer that trumps Gurley’s direct deposit.
Otherwise, call it a 6-10 season.
As far as the younger Jones stating the Cowboys will “damn sure” not be market-setters? Well, considering Lawrence set the market for 4-3 defensive ends, I’d say it’s best to take that statement with a grain of salt the size of the Golden Nugget. The money is there. The motivation on both sides is there. The only thing left to do is to pull the trigger and pay Elliott like the talent he is and the talent you plan to fully unleash in 2019 — as a receiver and red zone weapon in addition to his stout rushing abilities. Save the price-haggling for the 45th guy on the roster, because he’s the one you’d like to have but can live without. Elliott, by any and all measure, is not.
A, but also a bit insulting when it’s Elliott we’re talking about.