FRISCO, Texas – Let's play a little "what if?"
This is the second week of OTA practices.
We get to watch our second session on Thursday, then three more light workouts, emphasis on "light," during next week's mandatory minicamp.
Also, on Thursday the calendar strikes June 1, officially the date Ezekiel Elliott not only becomes a free agent – he has been available for other teams to sign since designated a June 1 release back on March 15 – but by June 2 his $10.9 million salary comes off the Cowboys' salary cap books.
So, his $16.7 million salary cap hit for 2023 is reduced to $5.8 million. Remember, by releasing Zeke with two years left on his contract, the Cowboys incur $11.8 million in dead money, and by making him a June 1 release, the amount is spread over these next two seasons – $5.8 million this year and $6 in 2024.
Dead money is dead money.That brings me to my "what if?"
Remember, last week head coach Mike McCarthy said when asked how the Cowboys replace Elliott's 2022 production, "Well, I just don't think you go and replace Zeke. I don't look at it that way."
More than most, McCarthy understands and appreciated Zeke's production last season, including his 876 yards rushing, 12 rushing touchdowns and going 12 of 14 picking up first downs on third-and-1 in 15 games. That 85.7 percent conversion rate was highest among running backs with at least eight attempts and second most to only James Connor of Arizona's 13 of 16 among non-quarterbacks.
McCarthy blamed the release of Zeke on "cap-o-nomics."
Meaning the Cowboys, having spent $10.1 million to franchise the younger Tony Pollard, couldn't qualify paying Zeke the $10.9 million base salary.
But, and here it comes, "what if" the Cowboys used a small portion of that $10.9 million to, uh, re-sign Zeke to something more cap-o-nomic feasible if another team does not knock his socks off with an offer that certainly hasn't been proposed yet so the eighth-year veteran can complement Pollard? Maybe like a $3 million base loaded with incentives classified as "unlikely to be earned" so they aren't immediately charged to this year's salary cap?
Yeah, I get it, the Cowboys did sign veteran running back Ronald Jones, but to only to a one-year, minimum deal, counting just $1.09 million against the cap. And this for a guy who last year played in just six games for Kansas City, 17 carries for 70 yards. Get that they like second-year back Malik Davis and drafted Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round. Yet, any of those guys picking up 12 of those third-and-1s? Any of those guys scoring seven rushing TDs from one-yard out and nine total inside the five-yard line?
Plus, think about this. While Pollard led the team with 1,007 yards rushing and three more on 39 receptions, he played 569 snaps over 16 games, so 49 percent of the offensive snaps. Zeke? Well, supposedly disposable Zeke played 558 snaps over 15 games, so 48 percent. Any of the aforementioned worthy of pulling off that load?
McCarthy is right. _Don't think you just go out and replace Zeke. Agree whole heartily. Thus, my "what if?"
· No Windfall: Stuffing Zeke's $10.9 million base salary back into the salary cap should not be viewed as some sort of lottery winning to be used frivolously now that the Cowboys have roughly $20 million of cap space. Like, you know as so many want to suggest, looking at a DeAndre Hopkins, who likely would like every penny of that cap space for one year. The Cowboys traditionally like to go into the season with at least $8-10 million of cap space available for operating costs over an 18-week season. Plus, don't think when they made this June 1 move to release Zeke they hadn't already projected how to use these dollars. First of all, that would fund their rookie class. But with that already completed, now those dollars can be used to possibly extend Trevon Diggs or CeeDee Lamb. Maybe even Dak Prescott entering the third year of his four-year deal. Maybe even locking up Pro Bowl center Tyler Biadasz, entering the last year of his rookie four-year deal, or even using some of the funds to get Pollard signed to a long-term deal to lessen the impact of his $10.1 million franchise tag. Hey, or even to entice restricted free agent Terence Steele, who is on a one-year deal, to sign for a couple of years. It's no time to go out to splurge and needlessly buy a vet.
· Explosive Runs: Here is another reason to preserve Pollard's explosiveness. The Pro Bowl running back was ranked fifth in an NFL.com study of the league's most explosive runners in 2022 with a total score of 87 on his 193 carries. This was based on some Next Gen Stats, plus these: Pollard had 31 runs of 10-plus yards, or 16.1 percent of his 193 carries. He also was judged to having 43 runs of at least 15-plus mph, or 22.3 percent of all his runs. Tops was Chicago quarterback Justin Fields with a 98 score. Fields' runs are a bit distorted since many of his 160 carries are quarterback scrambles, not born out of designed runs. Fields was judged with 33 runs of 10-plus yards (20.6 percent) and 89 runs of at least 15-plus mph (55.6 percent). So the unanswered question becomes what happens if Pollard's touches per game increase from last year's 14.5 a game? Does production increase or, er, decrease with increased work?
· Shorties: Doesn't make it feel any better, but McCarthy has some "fine" company. New England head coach Bill Belichick has been fined $50,000 and the Patriots two OTA practices for scheduling more player time at the facility than is allowed during these workdays, and when asked how the loss of the workouts affect the team, he said, "We had a good long weekend." … The Cowboys do have room on their 90-man roster, finishing last week's OTAs with 88 listed, so room to add a veteran kicker for competition with Tristan Vizcaino and maybe a fourth QB if they can find one worthy of a looksee … If you are wondering why the Cowboys are starting their first preseason game against Jacksonville at AT&T Stadium on Saturday, Aug. 12, at the unstable time of 4 p.m., it's not for TV purposes, but rather for the Cowboys to return to Oxnard, Calif., at a more convenient time to resume training camp for another week before heading out to Seattle for the second preseason game on Aug. 19, unfortunately a 9 p.m. CDT, and then returning back to Dallas likely a little before sunrise Sunday.
For this week's last word, let's go to some of the first words we've heard from newly acquired wide receiver Brandin Cooks, quickly indoctrinated to the media scene covering the Cowboys this past Thursday when the locker room was open to the media after the OTA session, remarking for the first time since he was signed here, the 11th year veteran saying, "The Dallas Cowboys for ya."
But let's hear what a guy who has been in the league now for more than a decade, having played for the Saints, Patriots, Rams and Texans, had to say about his routine to prepare for a season.
"I would say I learned my routine probably going into Year 4, Year 5 and every year I feel like I'm adding to that," Cooks said. "Like I tell the guys, like I spend my money on my body because at the end of the day, as we know, your greatest ability is your availability, and I take that seriously, not just on the field but off the field as well."
And when asked who helped him to this realization as a young player, Cooks said, "The two guys who come to mind right away are Drew (Brees) and Tom (Brady). Obviously, they're quarterbacks, so it looks a little different but just how serious they were about their routine, you know 20 plus years into the league, so I learned a lot of that from them."