MOBILE, Ala. – If it comes down to preference, the Cowboys would certainly welcome Ezekiel Elliott back to the team in 2023.
On Wednesday down at the Senior Bowl, owner/GM Jerry Jones was quick to answer when asked about Zeke.
"Would like you have him back next year, yes."
Cowboys chief operating officer Stephen Jones agreed, stating "Oh yeah, you always want Zeke back."
But there's always a business side to the NFL and keeping players on the roster comes down to more than just desire and preference.
Not long after Stephen Jones said he wanted to have Zeke back on the team this year, he pointed out the financial issues that might make it difficult for Elliott to be back for his eighth season in Dallas.
"We want him back, but do the numbers work?" Jones asked rhetorically. "Sometimes it's a hard business and I think he knows that. I think I've seen him quoted. But we're going to have to talk business."
Zeke has reportedly said he is willing to take a pay cut, perhaps reducing his $10.9 million base salary for 2023. Right now, he's projected to count $16.7 million on the cap. If the Cowboys were to release him before June 1, they'll save about $5 million on the cap but would save nearly $12 million if he's designated as a post-June 1 cut.
The issues for the Cowboys also include re-signing Tony Pollard, who despite suffering a broken fibula and high-ankle sprain, will require either a huge payday or maybe even the franchise tag of $10.1 million.
Can the Cowboys realistically make it work to keep both players? Jerry Jones said there's always a way if that's what they choose to do.
"When we ask a question about whether financially something is realistic, any one thing is … any two things are," Jones said. "But all of that impacts what you can do in other places. That's the way we'll make our decisions."
The Cowboys have several unrestricted free agents they want to keep, including Pollard and Dalton Schultz, along with Donovan Wilson, Leighton Vander Esch, Connor McGovern, Anthony Brown and Cooper Rush to name just a few.
But still, Zeke seems to be on the priority list of players to keep, especially after coming off a 12-touchdown season that saw him score a rushing TD in nine straight games, the second-longest streak in Cowboys history.
Zeke rushed for 876 yards despite missing two games due to injuries. This marked the first time in his career he didn't lead the team in rushing as Pollard went for a career-high 1,007 yards to earn his first Pro Bowl selection.
But with Zeke, both Stephen and Jerry Jones said there are parts to his game that go beyond the stat sheet that make it harder to evaluate.
"Zeke will look better the more you look at what he brought to the table as we get into reviewing what the season was," Jerry Jones said. "I don't want to talk about Zeke until we've had the benefit of really evaluating our whole season. But I do know this, without even looking at an evaluation, Zeke was a lot more incremental to the success that we had than his rushing yards indicate. I believe that."
Stephen Jones said he understands the fans get more excited about Pollard's game, but Zeke's contributions can't go unnoticed.
"Zeke is a blue-collar guy and his competitiveness and what he brings to the table. You can't really define it with stats. That's just how we look at it," Stephen Jones said. "Zeke has been amazing in terms of what he's down with the Cowboys and his tenue here. It's just hard to define. Like I said, Tony is more of a fan's guy. You see the flash and you see the juice. Zeke is a blue-collar guy that is bringing things to the table that's hard to define."
But the NFL is indeed a business. And over the next few weeks, the Cowboys must figure out a way to define Zeke's value and if it works to bring him back.