Ezekiel Elliott is still producing at a high level for the Cowboys but, in need of cap space ahead of 2023 NFL free agency, his contract is a question mark — his ability is not, though.
FRISCO, TX — The first domino has officially fallen onto the table of 2023 free agency for the Dallas Cowboys, the club having applied this year's franchise tag to Pro Bowl running back Tony Pollard. That move, while being widely expected, pushes the spotlight to former two-time NFL rushing champ Ezekiel Elliott, who carries a sizable salary cap hit for the coming season.
That is, of course, unless he and the Cowboys come to terms on some sort of pay reduction, or unless the team executes a restructure on his deal (no permission is needed by a player to pull this trigger).
Elliott is on schedule to hit the Cowboys salary cap for $16.8 million in 2023, a number that can be flipped into $7.3 million in savings with a restructure, per OverTheCap.com.
The point is the organization has options if it truly wants to keep Elliott around to tandem with Pollard — giving the two a chance to extend each other's career while continuing to complement each other in a way that makes them arguably the best RB tandem in the league; and that's precisely what owner and general manager Jerry Jones has in mind.
"I think if you'll carry through how we used them both last year, in anything we've talked about, I haven't seen that we wouldn't have both doing the best things they do," said Jones at the 2023 NFL Combine in Indianapolis. "We've got to remember Zeke was limited — he wasn't as limited as we would've worried about him being — but he was limited last year."
There's also something to be said for Elliott's leadership in the locker room, having fully embraced and aided greatly in the development of Pollard toward the latter's eventual breakout season.
Elliott, 27, finished the 2022 season with 968 yards from scrimmage with 12 touchdowns, the tally of TDs being equal to 2021 and only two fewer than his second Pro Bowl season in 2019, and this was despite missing two games with a sprained knee suffered against the Detroit Lions in Week 7 — a game he went on to finish, including hurdling a defender after suffering the injury.
So, when speaking about Elliott's status with the team, a very self-aware Jones doesn't feel there's a decline that's occurring as much as there is the reality that Pollard has emerged as a fellow feature back that leads the Cowboys to splitting reps between the two for maximum impact.
"I know I've got a reputation for being reluctant to look at great players as they go in the later years of their careers, but I don't need a feeling of [nostalgia' to turn on a tape and see what a difference-maker [Elliott] was last year in games through the end of the year," said Jones.
"He made plays, made runs that, had we not made them, things could've been more negative than they turned out. If I could replicate the feeling that I had before Tony Pollard got hurt [in the NFC Divisional Round], and the feeling that I had with those good weeks of practice behind him and ready to go into the playoffs, I'd dial that up right now.
"That very feeling — I would not try to improve on that right now."
And, with that thought process still in place regarding Elliott, the only thing left to do is for the Cowboys to figure out the best and most financially palatable way to keep the former All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler in the building going forward.
They've finally found a sweet spot at the running back position and aren't interested in turning it sour.