I’d like to preface this by noting a few things. First, I am a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan. Second, I believe Ezekiel Elliott at his best is the best running back in the NFL. Third, I believe Elliott is doing the right thing (for him) by holding out of training camp in an attempt to leverage his way into a new, long-term contract. Fourth, the fan part of my brain holds precisely zero animosity toward Elliott for taking this stance, and no part of me believes he should just show up to camp without getting what he wants.
That said, I believe even more strongly the Cowboys absolutely should not give in to Elliott’s demands. They shouldn’t do it at or above the price of Todd Gurley’s contract extension. They shouldn’t do it at a price slightly south of Gurley’s, in the Le’Veon Bell or David Johnson range. And they probably shouldn’t do it in the range between Johnson and the next-highest paid running back, Devonta Freeman.
I’m fully aware that I likely stand on the far end of the spectrum here, and I know that I’m on thethan my colleague Patrik Walker. But there is strong evidence available pretty much everywhere that paying Elliott would be a poor use of resources.
We can start with the fact that Zeke is, well, a running back. There’s a reason players at that position have not been seeing their contract values rise along with the rest of the league, that more and more teams are moving into committee arrangements in the backfield, and also are generally more willing to let top-end players at that position walk in free agency than they are at any other spot on the field.
Running backs tend to have the shortest careers, the highest rate of injury, and the poorest return on investment; this has been shown time and again over the years. And it’s not a trend that’s reversing. In fact, it’s getting even more stark. Passes are becoming more and more valuable than runs. All of this makes the skill set of the even the best running backs less valuable than players at other positions like quarterback, offensive line, and even wide receiver.
Running backs have also been shown to generally be more replaceable than players at other positions. This has even been true of the Cowboys. In 2017, Elliott was suspended six games for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. In the six games he missed, backups Alfred Morris and Rod Smith combined to average 27 touches per game, which they used to create 129 total yards and just over one touchdown per game. In the 10 games he played, Elliott averaged … 27 touches per game, which he used to create 125 yards and just south of one touchdown per game.
While it’s true that Dak Prescott struggled during the six games where Elliott was suspended, the reality is not quite that clean. For example, Tyron Smith missed the first two of those six games, but played the final four. And Prescott’s performance was markedly different when the star left tackle was in the lineup.
Prescott was running for his life during the two games where Chaz Green and Byron Bell filled in for Smith, and it had a dramatic effect on his performance. When Smith returned, Prescott went back to something approximating his usual self. An 88.8 passer rating is not good, per se, but it was better than the league average rating in 2017, and far better than what Prescott did when Elliott and Smith were both absent. Oh, and in the two other games (one and a quarter, really) where Prescott has played without Elliott, he went 31 of 52 for 424 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks. That’s equivalent to a 111.4 passer rating. Notably, Smith played in both of those games.
Even in seasons where Elliott performed better (his yards per carry average in 2017 was a career-low 4.1, while it ticked back up to 4.7 last season), his production was not quite as valuable as the raw totals would lead one to believe. As FiveThirtyEight’s Josh Hermsmeyer showed earlier this offseason, the majority of Elliott’s success came in situations where it was disadvantageous to run in the first place, like on first and second downs with at least four yards to gain. In the situations cited most often as evidence of Elliott’s true value — closing out games with a lead, short yardage in the red zone, and short yardage in the open field — Elliott ranked in the middle of the pack. And his runs were notably less efficient and valuable than Prescott’s passes and runs.
This is usually the part of the conversation where Elliott backers will say, “But the Cowboys built their offense around Zeke. They need him.” That argument would just hold a lot more water if said Elliott-centric offense were, like, actually good. The Cowboys ranked 22nd in both yards and points last season, as well as 24th in offensive efficiency, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Those figures were better after the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper, as Dallas ranked 15th in yards per game, 19th in points per game, and 10th in DVOA after acquiring the receiver from the Raiders prior to the trade deadline. If the Dallas offense needed Cooper to boost them from the bottom-third of the league to around league average, that does not seem like an argument in favor of Elliott’s value.
And it’s here where we come back around to Prescott again, because the Dallas offense actually was really, really good during his rookie season, which was the best year of his career. The Cowboys ranked fifth in both yards and points, and third in offensive DVOA in 2016. So, see, the Zeke-centric offense can work … as long as the Cowboys get high-level quarterback play. And if the Zeke-dependent offense is actually that reliant on quarterback play to be successful, well then why, exactly, is it Elliott who is seen as the one driving said value? It’s pretty clear that what’s important here is the quarterback, not the running back. And, surprise, surprise, that’s essentially what the rest of the league has figured out as well. (And as we showed earlier, Prescott’s own performance has not been quite as dependent on Elliott as the popular consensus seems to believe.)
Even beyond all this, Elliott’s usage through the first three years of his career should give the Cowboys pause when it comes to paying him. He has two 300-plus carry seasons under his belt already, and is likely about to have a third. That would already make him one of just 29 backs in NFL history to carry the ball 300 or more times thrice in his career. We know all about how the risk of injury increases as running backs add more and more miles to their odometer, and Zeke is racking them up quicker than almost anyone ever has.
Perhaps he’s the rare case of a back who can handle that large a workload over an extended period of time, but Elliott has also proven largely unreliable when it comes to his behavior off the field. Elliott has already been suspended under the domestic violence policy, and faces a permanent ban if he violates it again. He has also had multiple run-ins with personal conduct policy, receiving several warnings for things like: being involved in an alleged bar fight, pulling down a woman’s shirt at a parade without her consent, being spotted at a marijuana dispensary, and most recently, shoving a security guard to the ground outside of a music festival. That is not the off-field resume of a player whose team should be rushing to show him the bag. It’s more along the lines of the kind of guy with whom you go year-to-year.
This is especially true given that the Cowboys recently invested two draft picks in running backs, one of whom (fourth-round pick Tony Pollard) is lighting up training camp and getting full-time starter treatment in preseason games. The Cowboys have compared Pollard to Alvin Kamara on several occasions, and plugging him into that role while either easing Elliott’s workload or replacing him with their own Mark Ingram-style back could prove similarly dangerous.
And all of this is just prelude to the monetary argument. Simply, paying Elliott big money over a long term does not make financial sense — even before you account for the potential for age-related decline, injury, or suspension-related absence. Even on his rookie contract, Elliott is not providing as great a return on investment as other running backs of similar quality.
Consider the following chart: Last season, there were 12 running backs who produced at least 10 points of Approximate Value (AV), per Pro-Football-Reference. Elliott was part of that group of 12 backs. Among the group, he averaged the fourth-most AV per game, racking up 15 points in 15 games. But Elliott counted against Dallas’ books for $6,806,274, giving him the third-highest cap hit among all NFL running backs, and the second-highest among the 12 most-valuable running backs.
His cap hit was more than twice the average cap hit of that group of 12 players, and he was thus the least cost-efficient player among that group, with the Cowboys paying $453,752 per AV point. And this was in a season where Elliott led the NFL in total touches, rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing yards per game, and blew away his career highs in receptions and receiving yards, while doubling his career total in receiving touchdowns.
Expanding the above sample to the 39 running backs who produced at least 5 points of Approximate Value last season, Elliott ranks 34th, ahead of only Dion Lewis, Mark Ingram, Lamar Miller, David Johnson, and Latavius Murray. Notably, two of those players (Ingram and Murray) are now on different teams; one (Lewis) lost his job by the end of last season; one (Miller) just saw his team bring in a potential replacement and/or complement; and the last (Johnson) was stuck playing in arguably the worst scheme in football last season and is also on the exact kind of deal Elliott is seeking.
Let’s assume the Cowboys gave Elliott what he wanted, and handed him a deal that slightly exceeds Gurley’s in total value, guaranteed money, and the all-important three-year cash flow. If Zeke counted for $40 million against the cap over those three seasons, he would need to produce 88 points of Approximate Value during that period to be as cost-efficient as he was in 2018. (Which, again, was not all that cost-efficient.) If he merely produced at the exact same level during those three seasons as he did a year ago (1.00 AV/Game), he would be about as cost-efficient as Miller was last year ($833,333/AV vs. $837,891/AV). And that assumes Elliott plays all 48 games during that three-year span. Any injury (an increasingly likely event as a running back makes his way into the middle of his career) or suspension (a likelier event for Elliott than other star running backs, given his history) would obviously render him even less cost-efficient.
Even if we assume the Cowboys were willing to eat the inefficiency simply to have one of the most productive backs in the NFL on their roster for at least three additional seasons, there’s still the matter of the raw cost, and how it could affect the rest of the team’s roster. Not only is Elliott extension-eligible at this moment, but so are teammates Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Jaylon Smith, and Anthony Brown. Maliek Collins, La’el Collins, and Antwaun Woods are each headed into the final year of their respective contracts, while Xavier Woods will become extension-eligible at the end of the season, and Leighton Vander Esch will be eligible for his own payday at the end of the 2020 campaign.
The Cowboys are in pretty good shape cap-wise over the next few seasons.
They still have $22.76 million in space available this year, according to Spotrac, and that number could actually increase if they sign Cooper to an extension that is structured to reduce his cap 2019 cap hit from its current $13,924,000 figure. That additional space, though, would likely be reduced by any new deal for Prescott, who currently counts on the books for just $2,120,849.
Still, Dallas is set up with nearly $65 million in space next offseason at this moment, third-most in the league. And it’s incredibly easy for the team to add to that number. Parting ways with swing tackle Cameron Fleming adds $4.5 million to the coffers while cutting Tyrone Crawford tacks on an additional $8 million. Those moves alone would push their space to $77.2 million, and the Cowboys could always restructure deals of players they know will be on the team for at least a few more years, as they often have in the past. (They don’t need to do it anymore, but they conceivably could.)
Zooming out an additional year, the Cowboys have a projected $158 million in space for the 2021 offseason, fifth-most in the NFL. They are not lacking for funds here. But none of the aforementioned core players (Prescott, Cooper, Jones, Smith, Xavier Woods) is currently under contract for the 2021 season, and neither are any of Collins, Collins, Brown, Antwaun Woods, Chidobe Awuzie, or Jourdan Lewis. And that’s before we talk about how much is needed simply to fill out the roster and replace contributors like Jason Witten, Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, Robert Quinn, Tyrone Crawford, Taco Charlton, Sean Lee, Joe Thomas, Jeff Heath, and Kavon Frazier, assuming none of them gets extended themselves between now and then.
The only quarterback currently under team control for that season is Mike White, who is, kindly, not a solution. Michael Gallup will likely be looking for a new deal that offseason, while the Cowboys will have had to find at least one tight end not named Dalton Schultz, because he’s the only one under contract for that league year. If the Cowboys don’t retain La’el Collins, they’ll have to find at least one additional starter and two additional backups along the offensive line. Lawrence, Trysten Hill, Dorance Armstrong, Joe Jackson, Jalen Jelks, and undrafted free-agent Daniel Wise are the only defensive linemen under contract, while Vander Esch, Chris Covington, Michael Jackson Sr., and Donovan Wilson are the only non-camp-body back-seven players whose deals last that long.
It’s excellent to have the kind of flexibility Dallas has right now, and having too many good players to pay is about as good a problem as a team could ask for; but all this space dries up quickly when you start accounting for deals to the top-line players like Prescott, Cooper, Jones, and Smith, plus whatever mid-tier deals the team decides to hand out to important contributors like Brown, Antwaun Woods, Xavier Woods, Awuzie, and Lewis, and any additional free-agents and/or draft picks they bring in to fill out the position groups that will be losing players due to age or lack of resources.
The Cowboys can fit a big deal for Elliott onto their books. There’s no question about that. The money is there. The question is whether they should want to.
Given what we know about how cost-inefficient doing so would be even if Elliott stays at or near his peak level of performance; the likelihood that said performance will decline or he will get injured as he moves into his mid-to-late 20s; the relative lack of success of the Elliott-centric offense the team has run over the past three years (and its dependence on high-level quarterback play to be elevated to the upper echelons of the league); the need for the team to invest in players at positions that carry more importance; the team’s existing investments in the offensive line infrastructure that should allow any replacement to find a degree of success; the existence of potential contributors to said success already on the roster; and Elliott’s history of off-field issues and inability to avoid running afoul of the personal conduct policy, there are very few reasons to believe such a deal would be worth it in the end.
The Cowboys are far more likely to get more bang for their buck by either allowing Elliott to play through the fifth-year option and then franchising him for a year or two (thus ensuring themselves six or seven years of elite running back play, a decent but not great return on their first-round investment), or by simply allowing him to leave and replacing him with a committee that may not — but conceivably could — be quite as productive as Elliott from a raw numbers standpoint but would be far more cost-efficient, and would also allow the Cowboys to spend the additional the money elsewhere, building a deeper, more flexible roster that is a better fit for the modern NFL.