As the NFL league year wrapped on Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys made a move that was almost as surprising as it made sense: releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott.
Picked fourth in the 2016 NFL Draft by Dallas, the three-time Pro Bowler had since rushed for 8,262 yards and 68 touchdowns, routinely finding weaknesses in both the defense and 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 stood in stark contrast to the current NFL landscape, combined with the unleashing of a more explosive and younger teammate, led the Cowboys to move on.
“We agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone is to experience free agency, and to increase our flexibility and options,” Jones said in a statement. “Zeke’s impact and influence has burned into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way.”
[Free $25K best bracket contest for women’s tourney | Printable bracket]
As the Cowboys and Elliott look to independent futures for the first time in seven years, Dallas’ immediate prospects appear to be the clearer of the two. Tony Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns last year with a 5.2 yard per carry average. After recovering from a postseason broken leg, you can expect Pollard to officiate a Cowboys run game that head coach Mike McCarthy wants to feature more prominently. Add to that either 2022 undrafted free agent Malik Davis or a draft selection, and the Cowboys will march forward after June 1 with an additional $10.9 million salary cap.
Its market is complicated even more by its recent offensive evolution than by its (perhaps not entirely unrelated) decline in production and efficiency.
Yahoo Sports consulted NFL talent evaluators for more information.
Reality awaits Ezekiel Elliott
Four seasons have passed since Elliott’s 40-day contract extension forced Jones to award his running back a six-year contract worth $90 million, including $50 million in guarantees. NFL contracts are much more complex than just average annual value — and yet Elliott’s $15 million a year was wild then and may be even wilder now.
Only San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who agreed to his current price with the Carolina Panthers in 2020, have since crossed the line. McCaffrey and his agent Joel Segal then argued that the player “speaks three languages” with elite running, catching passes and blocking. The receiving threat that McCaffrey poses was on full display last season as he caught 85 passes for 741 receiving yards and five touchdowns… above his 1,139 yards and eight scoring rushes. His compensation reflects the value of a hybrid running back receiver in a league that pays receivers significantly more.
After McCaffrey, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is the only other running back to earn more than $12.6 million a year. Kamara has contributed 43% of his production and 31% of his passing game scoring compared to Elliott, whose resume is only 22% of his yardage and 15% of his scoring. That matters to NFL teams and their contract writers.
Talent evaluators from three different organizations agreed on the main premise: Pass-heavy concepts continue to devalue run 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 position durability.
“Running first is almost frowned upon now,” a pro scout told Yahoo Sports.
“There are only a handful or two of genuine RB1s left in the league,” added another.
An AFC manager agreed that “it has become a two person job instead of one dominant back”.
The director’s conclusion?
“I don’t think RBs as a position will get much money anymore.”
For Elliott, time won’t heal everything
Two temporary factors now hurt Elliott: the years that have passed since he received a valuation of value that no longer passes the eye test, and the days that have passed into the 2023 free agency cycle (and legal and illegal sabotage cycles) in which three major ongoing contracts have been awarded.
After Miles Sanders rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers awarded him a four-year, $25 million deal with $13 million guaranteed per Spotrac. Jamaal Williams’ season of 1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns in the top division earned him a three-year deal worth $12 million with $8 million guaranteed at New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Lions, who ran Williams, returned ex-Chicago Bears David Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million deal, with $11 million guaranteed after an 801-yard, five-touchdown season.
To put it plainly, this means that three teams that needed something this spring and were willing to pay something for a running back no longer meet both criteria.
Also three players whose production slots near Elliott’s total output average between $4 million and $6.25 million per year, with no meaningful guarantees after two years. Elliott’s efficiency lagged behind each 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 assess running back efficiency with a DVOA ranking that takes into account game scenarios and opponents. Through the 2022 season, Sanders ranked sixth, Montgomery ranked 22nd, Elliott ranked 24th, and Williams ranked 26th.
“He’s still valuable in close range and goal-line situations,” said one of the pro scouts, who also praised Elliott’s strength in pass protection. “Zeke still has a lot of potential to continue to be a dominant first- and second-down back. He has a unique size and strength combined with vision and good feet behind him [line of scrimmage] to emphasize first level defenses. I can see him going to a team that wants to be a first-off and use his skills to set up efficient first- and second-down chunks 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 going to get.”
Jones’ sentimentality won’t soften Elliott’s next deal.
Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next season?
Coaches and executives who predicted Elliott’s landing spots for Yahoo Sports included the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals among the teams that would benefit from his services. If the Los Angeles Chargers complete a trade from Austin Ekeler (they reportedly granted his request to find one), Elliott could consider reuniting with his old coordinator and teammate Kellen Moore, though a poor fit and philosophy might outweigh personal. familiarity. An even better match might be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just released Fournette and hired Elliott’s longtime position coach Skip Peete.
Every reviewer believed that Elliott would be prosecuted some kind of a role, because while “the RB market is quite unforgiving, especially this free agency,” said one of the scouts, “he is still young ‘enough’ with a history of manufacturing to get an opportunity/role somewhere.
“And I don’t think anyone can deny his toughness.”
As for how much Elliott could earn, an AFC executive estimated that Elliott could receive a $5 million offer with incentives.
Even that director wondered if he would validate such a deal.
“Think teams usually pay for the name,” said the director. “I think the open market will humble him.”