Crossroads: Seeking harmony between pay, production, Cowboys’ Elliott facing critical 2021

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Matthew Lenix
·4 min read
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Ezekiel Elliott had the entire North Texas area buzzing when he was selected No. 4 overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 draft. Of course with that type of hype, the expectations were through the roof for the former Ohio State Buckeye and he didn’t disappoint.

Since that electric start though, Elliott’s production has declined in each season. Over his second and third seasons, the downturn wasn’t dramatic and rightfully was just chalked up to year-to-year fluctuations. Over the last two seasons though, questions have emerged of just where Elliott’s ceiling lies. As 2021 approaches, it appears the star running back is entering a crossroads season.

As a rookie, Elliott spearheaded a 13-3 campaign for the Cowboys (tied for the best regular season record in franchise history) that year with his burst, power, and unique ability to leap over defenders for extra yardage. He won the NFL rushing title with 1,631 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns while garnering First-Team All-Pro honors. Despite a playoff loss in the second round to the Green Bay Packers, Elliott showed he could perform when the lights were the brightest with 125 yards on 22 carries.

He followed that amazing start by leading the league in rushing yards per game (98.3) in 2017 and capturing his second rushing title (1,434 yards) in 2018.

Despite finishing fourth in rushing yards (1,357), fourth in touchdowns (12), second in all-purpose yards (1,777), and tied for first in 100-yard games (7) a year later, the rumblings of Elliott’s demise begin to surface.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN did a series in the summer of 2020, ranking the top-10 players at 11 different positions. Elliott was ranked as the third-best running back behind Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey. However, one anonymous coach didn’t see things quite the same, ranking Elliott the 11th-best running back in the league.

“Very few breakout runs, doesn’t look as strong anymore. Feels like he’s about 60 to 70 percent of what he was.”

Elliott himself scoffed at the take. “Whoever this is, is faded lol.”

The two-time rushing champ came into his fifth NFL season feeling like he had a lot to prove after the doubts about his ability, but it didn’t work out that way for him. He failed to reach 1,000 yards (979) for the first time during a full season of action and recorded a career-high six fumbles (team lost four).

That performance has led many to question his desire and work ethic, especially with an annual $15 million price tag. When mentioning the top running backs in the league, Elliott is no longer talked about in the same breath as Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, and Christian McCaffrey.

The man who once wore the crown as the NFL’s best running back has become an afterthought to the point fans of the Cowboys are ready to move one from him after singing his praises for several years.

In a move almost guaranteed based on the structure of his contract, Elliott’s 2022 base salary of $12.4 million became guaranteed earlier this spring. He’ll be paid well, but now the work has to be done to return to the throne.

Elliott has already gotten a jump-start on regaining his reputation this offseason. He’s been seen in videos doing on-field drills as well as gym work with backfield running mate Tony Pollard.

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Elliott’s chances of a bounce-back season will depend heavily on the health of quarterback Dak Prescott and his offensive line.

The former was seen about a week ago putting in fieldwork and looking pretty mobile on his surgically repaired right ankle. The latter lost both starting tackles Tyron Smith and La’el Collins to neck and hip injuries in 2020. However, they’re progressing well in their recoveries and should be ready to go once football activities pick back up.

Assuming everything is intact around Elliott, the time for him causing sleepless nights for defensive coordinators around the NFL should return. After over 1,400 career carries, it may not be realistic to think he’ll ever have quite the burst or quickness he once had, but at only 25 years old (26 when the season starts), Elliott still has plenty of tread left on the tires.

With that being said, he still has to produce. If there’s anyone who can rejuvenate their career it’s a player of Elliott’s pedigree. Now, it’s about putting it all together between the white lines when it counts.

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