FRISCO, Texas – With so many questions to answer, this series will take a look at each position on the roster, and what choices might face the front office heading into 2021.
We'll continue with a look at the Cowboys' running back situation, which is currently facing as much scrutiny as any position on the team.
What Does The Future Hold For Ezekiel Elliott?
Outside of the obvious situation with Dak Prescott, there are few members of the Dallas Cowboys debated about more frequently by fans and media than Ezekiel Elliott.
The reasons why have been well covered. We here at DallasCowboys.com recapped Elliott's 2020 season just last month.
Elliott occupies the rare and unfortunate role of being both one of the NFL's better and most disappointing running backs. That goes with the territory when you lead the league in fumbles while also commanding a $15 million salary.
Everyone knows the circumstances that contributed to Elliott's down season. His offensive line was a shambles for practically the entire season, and he lost his starting quarterback to injury in Week 5. At the same time, it's perfectly fair to expect a $90 million running back to elevate his offense in dire circumstances, and Elliott wasn't quite on that level in 2020.
But that's enough about 2020 – what about now?
Thanks to his contract, Elliott's future has been hotly debated. He signed a six-year, $90 million extension right before the 2019 season, when he still had two more years remaining on his rookie deal -- which means he's currently under contract for a whopping six more years.
That price point, combined with his disappointing performance, has prompted plenty of people to suggest moving on. The problem is that it's way easier said than done. Releasing Elliott right now would incur a dead cap hit of roughly $24 million, while trading him would hit the salary cap for almost $15 million. Not to mention, the price the team would get in return would likely not be high, given the size of Elliott's contract and his dip in production. Even designating him a post-June 1 cut would hurt, as the Cowboys would then carry a chap charge of more than $10 million for each of the next two years.
There's also another interesting wrinkle: thanks to a clause in the contract, Elliott's 2022 salary becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of this league year, which is about three weeks from right now.
Theoretically, if the Cowboys were to decide to move on, that gives them just a few weeks to make that call, otherwise they'll be paying Elliott through the 2022 season. But given the impact that COVID-19 has had on the salary cap, not to mention the other expenses facing this team, is that realistic?
From this vantage point, the answer feels like no. It's possible the Cowboys have buyer's remorse about Elliott's contract. But is that remorse so strong that they would hit their salary cap for $20 million, just to have him gone?
It seems rash. Elliott was not an explosive player last season, particularly after Prescott's injury. He also has obvious work to do on his ball security.
Even still, this is a guy who produced 1,317 all-purpose yards and eight touchdowns last season. He also dealt with a calf injury that limited him in the latter half of the year, even prompting him to miss a game due to injury for the first time in his pro career.
And yes, it's worth pointing out that he did the vast majority of that work behind a makeshift offensive line, and without the help of Dak Prescott.
Of course, it isn't ideal that one of the highest-paid running backs in football needs all that help to produce at a top-tier level, but this is the situation the Cowboys find themselves in.
Elliott has rushed for 1,300 or more yards in three of his five NFL seasons. In the two seasons he failed to reach 1,000 yards, he missed doing so by a combined total of 38 yards. He has accounted for 8,699 yards of offense and 58 total touchdowns, and he'll be just 26 years old when the 2021 season starts.
For all those reasons, it's a good bet Elliott isn't going anywhere. And, even at that price point, that's fine. Despite the (valid) criticism, it's also a reasonable guess that the Zeke we see this coming season is an upgrade from what we got in 2020.