One man should never count another man’s pockets. That’s a golden rule, to stay out of someone else’s financial business. If a team rewards a player with a sizable contract, the impact on the team’s salary cap is certainly a worthy conversation, but begrudging a man for reaching a higher level of financial security is never the move. When Ezekiel Elliott received a six-year, $90 million extension in September 2019 it was the richest contract for a running back in NFL history.
Elliott’s value to Dallas at the time went well beyond his record-setting ways of being the first Cowboys RB to lead the league in rushing average for three straight years (all in his first three years), and one of only 13 players who has averaged 95 yards a game or better 3 or more times. That list is Elliott, Derrick Henry, Priest Holmes and 10 Hall of Famers. But now, in the fourth year of that extension and with teammate Tony Pollard set to hit free agency, it’s time to talk about what’s best for the club moving forward.
Faces of the Franchise
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When the Cowboys handed the reins of the offense over from Tony Romo, they didn’t give the job to just one man. Sure, Dak Prescott earned his starting role by winning over the locker room while Romo was on the mend. That’s how QB controversies are formed, by who the locker room rallies behind. But Prescott’s best friend and partner in crime in taking over the mantle was Elliott, who the Jones family clearly saw as the face of the franchise.
Elliott was the team’s highest draft pick since Troy Aikman in 1991 and with the way Prescott struggled in the 2018 (their fault for not giving him targets until trading for Amari Cooper) there really was no way to know if they were going to be able to stick with Prescott long term. Elliott played his cards right, his agent negotiated a deal in line with the top backs (Todd Gurley was paid the year prior) and into the sunset they went.
The need for and drafting of Tony Pollard
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That spring, the club drafted a RB/WR out of Memphis to compliment Elliott. Rod Smith and Darius Jackson had 2.9 and 2.7 yards-per-carry averages as Elliott’s backups in 2018, so clearly an upgrade was needed. Elliott led the league in carries in 2016 and 2018, not just yards per game, and even the most stubborn understand that wear and tear on RBs is a real thing.
In comes Pollard. Sick during his scouting combine testing, he ran just a 4.51 40-yard dash and perhaps he escaped the radar of several teams due to that combined with the jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none role he filled for the Tigers. To Will McClay and Dallas’ gain, of course.
Pollard has proven the perfect compliment for Elliott, but some have short-sightedly called for Pollard to replace Elliott when they’ve been the perfect compliment to each other.
Race Cars and Expensive Sedans
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DallasCowboys.com writer Patrik Walker elicited the best explanation for why both Pollard and Elliott are needed out of running back coach Skip Peete, who mentioned tandems he’s been involved with dating back to Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen. Peete crystalized something I’ve stated many times over, that Pollard can never be the workhorse back Elliott is with a great metaphor.
“[Pollard] played a total of 30 plays, and I think that’s his max – as far as total play count – because then the juice doesn’t become the same and he’s not as quick, not as fast,” said Peete. “When he got that long run on third-and-1, soon as he got to the sideline he said, ‘Coach, I’m done. Done for the game. I’ve got no more.’
“Tony’s obviously a very talented runner and good all-around back, but some guys are race cars. Some guys are high-quality, expensive sedans and those sedans can go for a long distance at a very high rate, whereas race cars go very fast and quick and run out of gas.”
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Pollard is a free agent after the 2022 season, his four-year rookie contract coming to an end. Elliott’s extension locked him in through 2026, as he had two years remaining, but the guaranteed money is now complete.
Pollard doesn’t deserve a contract at the level of Elliott’s; no running back is going to get that anymore. But the Cowboys certainly don’t want him to walk out the door.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have compensated Elliott for what he’s done on the field and what he’s been for the franchise. His $10.9 million salary in 2023 will be too high for a player in a defined snap share.
But there’s an easy answer here that likely gets all parties involved into a good space.
The Lawrence Precedent
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Releasing Elliott after the season would save Dallas $4.86 million against next year’s cap and wipe clear his cap hits from the 2024 and 2025 campaign. That’s not the only way for Dallas to save that cap space though.
They could take a page out of the book they just wrote with defense end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Lawrence signed a five-year, $105 million deal in April 2019. While still highly productive, he wasn’t getting the signature stat of sacks he was when he signed and the club had some moves they were trying to make. Scheduled to make $50 million in salary over the final two years (2022, 2023) and have a cap hit of $69 million, the sides renegotiated Lawrence’s deal.
The sides negotiated a three-year, $40 million deal which gave Lawrence an extra season, 2024, but reduced the amount coming to him (in exchange for guarantees).
His 2022 cap hit went from $27 million to $14 million. His 2023 cap hit went from $32 million to $26 million and those $19 million of cap hit savings fall onto 2024, a year they didn’t have his services prior to the new deal.
A similar manuever likely awaits Elliott.
What that looks like for Elliott
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Elliott has the following cap hit components over the next four years:
2023: $10.9M base, $5.82M bonus allocation
2024: $10M base, $4.3M bonus allocation
2025: $15.4M base, $1.72M bonus allocation
2026: $16M base
In total Elliott is owed $42.9 million in base salary over four seasons and has $54.74 million in cap hits.
Perhaps there’s a deal to be made that would pay Elliott $28 million in cash over four years, allowing him to retire as a Cowboy as the Jones surely want him to.
Lawrence was scheduled to make $19 million in 2022 and instead took home $15 million.
Elliott is scheduled to make $10.9 million in 2023. Here’s what that potential restructure would look like with him taking home the same amount in 2023, and then phasing down.
Signing Bonus: $9M
2023: $1.9M base, $2.25M new bonus, $5.82 previous allocation; cap hit reduced from $16.72 million to $9.97 million.
This is $6.75 million in cap savings, more savings than the club would see by outright releasing Elliott ($4.86M).
From 2024 through 2026, Elliott averages $5.7 million per year in base salary, bringing his cap hits down $2 million, $7.5 million and $8 million down respectively.
This is of course just one variant of many timelines. A void year could be added, the structures and money could shift, but this would certainly bring Elliott’s numbers down, allowing them money in the RB room, if they want to spend it there.
Room for Pollard, how much do they need?
Pollard’s a 30-snap, 15-18 touch guy. He’s not capable of giving a team more than that without diminishing returns. Joey Ickes made a wonderful thread about this on Twitter, how heavy workloads directly correlates to less explosive plays for Pollard.
In Pollards career (54 games) he has 38 plays from scrimmage of 15 or more yards. That’s 1 every 1.4 games.
After a heavy workload game it takes an average of 2.3 games for him to get another explosive run.
— Joey Ickes (@JoeyIckes) November 2, 2022
Pollard should fit somewhere in the Austin Ekeler range. He sees around 220 touches a year, which is where Ekeler was in 2019 before signing a four-year deal for $24.5 million.
Adding inflation, Pollard should most likely be around four years, $28 million.
Oh look, that’s what Elliott’s new contract should be as well.
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Of course none of this happens in a vacuum. The team has to consider new contracts for CeeDee Lamb and to a greater extent Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs on defense. Then there’s of course the looming Dak Prescott situation. He’s finishing Year 2 of a four year (with two voids).
Will the club look to bring down his cap hit by restructuring his $31 million base salary in 2023? Will the club be looking to extend him early following next season, or will they go into 2024 with the possibility of having to use a third tag on him at 144% of his $52 million cap hit that year?
It’s all part of a juggling act that ought to make people feel silly for wondering why they jettisoned Amari Cooper this past offseason to save cap space.