As the NFL league year turned around on Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys took a step that was almost as surprising as it was logical: the release of running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The three-time Pro Bowler, who Dallas selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, had since rushed for 8,262 yards and 68 touchdowns and routinely found weaknesses in defense and in the heart of team owner Jerry Jones.
Last season, Elliott contributed 876 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 12-5 campaign.
But a contract that was in stark contrast to the current NFL landscape, coupled with the unleashing of a more explosive and younger teammate, prompted the Cowboys to press on.
“We agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone is that he can experience free reign and we can increase our flexibility and options.” Jones said in a statement. “Zeke’s impact and impact has been etched into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way.”
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As the Cowboys and Elliott look to an independent future for the first time in seven years, Dallas’ immediate perspective appears to be the clearer of the two. Tony Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns last year with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. After recovering from a postseason broken leg, expect Pollard to officiate a Cowboys running game head coach Mike McCarthy wants to give more prominence. Add in either undrafted 2022 free agent Malik Davis or a draft pick for the position, and the Cowboys will be eligible after May 1.
Its market is made even more complicated by its recent aggressive development than its (perhaps not entirely unrelated) decline in production and efficiency.
Yahoo Sports consulted talent evaluators across the NFL to learn more.
The reality that awaits Ezekiel Elliott
Four seasons have passed since Elliott’s 40-day right to refuse a contract forced Jones to give him a six-year, $90 million deal, including $50 million in guarantees. NFL contracts are far more complex than just the average annual value — and yet Elliott’s $15 million-a-year mark was wild then and may be even wilder now.
Only San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who agreed with the Carolina Panthers on his current 2020 price point, has since eclipsed the brand. McCaffrey and his agent Joel Segal argued at the time that the player “speaks three languages” and has excellent running, passing and blocking skills. The receiving threat that McCaffrey poses was fully showcased last season when he caught 85 passes for 741 yards and five touchdowns… on top his 1,139 yards and eight rushing totals. Its compensation reflects the value of a hybrid running back receiver in a league that pays receivers significantly more.
After McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara is the only New Orleans Saints running back to make more than $12.6 million a year. Kamara has contributed 43% of his production and 31% of his passing score, compared to Elliott, whose resume accounts for just 22% of his mileage and 15% of his score. This is important to NFL teams and their contract writers.
Talent evaluators from three different organizations agreed on the main premise: Pass-through concepts continue to devalue running talent. Injuries to running backs on second contracts — think the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry, Elliott and even McCaffrey — add to concerns about the durability of the position.
“It’s almost frowned upon to be first,” a professional scout told Yahoo Sports.
“There’s only a handful or two real RB1s left in the league,” added another.
An AFC executive agreed that “rather than having a dominant back, it’s become a two-man job.”
The bottom line of this executive?
“I don’t think RBs are going to make much money as a position anymore.”
For Elliott, time won’t heal everything
Two factors of time now ache Elliott: the years that have passed since he received an appreciation that no longer passes the eye test, and the days that have passed in the 2023 cycle of free agency (and legal and illegal manipulation cycles). , in which three major running back deals were awarded.
After Miles Sanders rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns with the Philadelphia Eagles last season, the Panthers gave him a four-year, $25 million contract with a $13 million guaranteed per Spotrac. Jamaal Williams’ season of 1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns in the league earned him a three-year, $12 million contract with an $8 million guarantee in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Lions, who ran Williams, returned David Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million contract with $11 million guaranteed from an 801-yard, five-touchdown season.
To state the obvious, this means that three teams that needed something for a running back this spring and were willing to pay something no longer meet either criteria.
Also, three companies whose production slots near Elliott’s total output average between $4 million and $6.25 million per year with no meaningful two-year guarantees. Elliott’s efficiency lagged behind any of those three players, the Cowboys’ Bellcow averaging 3.8 yards per carry in 2022 compared to Montgomery’s 4.0, Williams’ 4.1 and Sanders’ 4.9.
Football Outsiders further assesses running back efficiency using a DVOA ranking that takes into account game scenarios and opponents. In the 2022 season, Sanders finished sixth, Montgomery 22nd, Elliott 24th, and Williams 26th.
“He’s still valuable in short yardage and goal-line situations,” said one of the pro scouts, who also touted Elliott’s pass protection prowess. “Zeke still has a lot of potential to remain a dominant first and second down back. He has unique size and strength combined with vision and good legs behind him [line of scrimmage] to emphasize the first level defense. I can imagine him going to a team that wants to be a run-first offensive and use his skills to set up efficient first and second down blocks and limit third-and-long situations.
“But it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets if that’s the role he’s given.”
Jones’ sentimentality won’t cushion Elliott’s next deal.
Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next season?
Among the coaches and executives who predicted Yahoo Sports Elliott’s landing spots were the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals, among others, who would benefit from his services. If the Los Angeles Chargers strike a deal by pushing Austin Ekeler back (they’ve reportedly granted his request to seek one), Elliott could be considered reuniting with his longtime coordinator and teammate Kellen Moore, though the poor customization and philosophy of the plan could personally outweigh familiarity. Perhaps an even better fit is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just fired Fournette and hired Elliott’s longtime position coach, Skip Peete.
Each reviewer believed Elliott would be prosecuted some Kind of a role because although “the RB market is pretty unforgiving, especially this free agency,” said one of the scouts, “he’s still young ‘enough’ with a production history to get an opportunity/role anywhere.
“And I don’t think anyone can deny his toughness.”
As for how much Elliott could make, an AFC exec estimated that Elliott could receive an offer of $5 million with incentives.
Even this executive wondered if he would validate such a deal.
“Think teams mostly pay for the name,” said the executive. “I think the open market will humble him.”