To pay Ezekiel Elliott or not to pay Ezekiel Elliott? That is the question that has been raging throughout Cowboys Nation for the last few months as we've debated how much each of the notable players should get paid in their respective contract extensions. Generally, it's not considered a good idea to offer running backs a second contract because of the decline that happens around age 27. It's the reason that the Dallas Cowboys opted not to extend a competitive offer to DeMarco Murray when he was a free agent after he led the NFL in rushing in 2014.
Ezekiel Elliott, though playing the same position as Murray, is a different case for the Cowboys. Elliott is one of the leaders on the team on and off the field. His running style helps set the tone for a team that wants to be a physical football team in the trenches and his ability to run for big gains takes a lot of pressure off of the passing attack for big plays. This is why many fans are clamoring for Elliott to see his pay-day when he gets closer to the end of his rookie contract.
If the Cowboys want to keep him, and that really is going to be the question, there are two contracts they should look at to structure his long-term extension: Cowboys Defensive End DeMarcus Lawrence and Los Angeles Rams Running Back Todd Gurley.
DeMarcus Lawrence got his pay-day last week in a five-year $105 million contract. His contract will pay out his guarantees over the first three years of the deal, which will get Lawrence through his age 30 season. If for some reason there's a decline in his play or his back doesn't hold up to the wear and tear of the NFL season, the Cowboys will have outs after the 2020 season. The only dead money they would add would be in his prorated signing bonus which is $5 million a year over the final three seasons.
The way the Los Angeles Rams paid Todd Gurley was really smart. After drafting him as a rookie in the first round, the Rams could have picked up his fifth year option for the 2019 season and then looked to negotiate a contract this offseason to extend him. The problem is they would have pushed guaranteed money closer to his age 30 season, which would leave them with problems had Gurley suffered the dreaded age-27 running back decline.
Instead, the Rams opted to sign Gurley to an extension which took up the final year and the option year of his rookie contract and then bought up the prime years of his career from age 26-29 through the 2023 season. The way the Rams structured the contract, they won't have any more guaranteed money to pay out to Gurley after the 2020 season. If they wanted to move on from Gurley in 2021, they could save $8.4 million and only have $4.2 million in dead money in 2021 and 2022 from his prorated signing bonus. $4.2 million by the time we get to the 2021 season, won't be as much as it would be on the 2019 cap. The Rams will only have to worry about Gurley staying productive for two more seasons before they can get out of his deal. The Rams could essentially opt out of his deal after his age 27 season, only having the $4.2 million in dead money over the final two years of the deal to the 2023 season.
The Dallas Cowboys could use both of these contracts to take a similar approach to paying Ezekiel Elliott. Right now, Elliott is heading into the fourth year of his rookie deal, which is the same point that Gurley was at when he received his extension from the Rams.
If the Cowboys wanted to, they could get Elliott extended now, which would take care of the last year of his rookie deal and the option year from being a first round draft pick. By doing this, they could have him under control through his prime years and not have to pay him any money going into his 30's.
Let's use the contract projection from K.D. Drummond of The Cowboys Wire as our example. Drummond estimates that an extension from the Cowboys could come in a six-year deal for $75.5 million with $48.25 million guaranteed which includes the final year of his rookie deal. According to his projection, Elliott would get a $22.5 million signing bonus, which would figure at $4.5 million over the first five years of the deal, with no guaranteed money in year six of the contract. K.D.'s projection would have Elliott locked up through 2024 -- Elliott's age 29 season -- and would keep the Cowboys from carrying any risk of a decline from Elliott into his 30's.
If the Cowboys front loaded his guarantees similarly to DeMarcus Lawrence, they'd only be hit with the base salary and the prorated signing bonus on the cap. If they moved on from Elliott after the guaranteed money was out, they'd only be hit with the prorated signing bonus as dead money through the 2023 season. They'd only be at risk until Elliott was 28 years old.
We know the player that Ezekiel Elliott is. He's the two-time NFL rushing champion and he's averaged right around 2,000 total yards when he's played at least 15 games. There's no reason to expect that Elliott won't continue to run at his league leading clip. As the passing game improves, hopefully, the wear and tear of Elliott should decrease as he's relied upon for 25 touches a game less.
Ezekiel Elliott's one of the best running backs in the NFL and deserves to be paid like one when the time comes. If the Dallas Cowboys front office plans to pay Elliott, the time to do so is now, so they aren't having to pay him into his 30's. Elliott's been a very durable player and could potentially be an effective player into his 30's like Frank Gore. With the amount of work he's gotten in his first three seasons in the league, the Cowboys would be wise to reduce their risk as Elliott leaves the prime of his career.
LB Justin Phillips Making a Case to Become a Roster Lock With Cowboys
In Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys arguably have the best linebacker duo in the entire NFL. They also have some pretty solid backups in Sean Lee and Joe Thomas, but the depth behind those four is completely up in the air. That is excellent news for an undrafted LB like Justin Phillips.
The former Oklahoma State Cowboy LB signed with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent after the completion of the 2019 NFL Draft. To go from being an Oklahoma State Cowboy to a Dallas Cowboy must've been a dream come true, especially for a kid from Pearland, Texas who rooted for America's Team growing up. The dream probably won't be complete though unless a roster spot comes with it.
Surprisingly, Justin Phillips has put himself into contention to earn one of those coveted roster spots. The way he has played in the first two preseason games has caught the attention of quite a few people, which should make it extremely difficult for the Cowboys coaching staff when it comes to making roster cut decisions. Dallas Cowboys Staff Writer and former Scout Bryan Broaddus agrees…
"Justin Phillips is going to make it hard on this staff to put him on the street. Not only is his finish impressive, but the awareness he plays with in pass coverage is impressive. There is no way I thought he had a chance for that interception, especially with this initial step into the line, but his ability to turn and run to a spot saved him."
Here is the play/interception Broaddus is referring to:
The Dallas Cowboys have typically only carried six linebackers on their 53-man roster these past few years. With four spots already spoken for, Justin Phillips is doing his damnedest to lock down one of those final two up for grabs. That, of course, is easier said than done.
Phillips is likely competing with Justin March-Lillard, who led the team in tackles against the Los Angeles Rams last week and fellow undrafted rookie LB Luke Gifford. Gifford, of course, missed the game against the Rams with an ankle injury he sustained in Week 1 of the preseason against the 49ers. It was actually that injury that resulted in more playing time for Justin Phillips.
If you're doing the math here, that's three linebackers competing for two roster spots. March-Lillard probably has the upper hand right now over the two rookies, but I wouldn't say he's secured a job just yet. That leaves the door open for No. 44 (Phillips) and No. 57 (Gifford).
As much as I like Luke Gifford, and I do, I think the stars could be aligning for Justin Phillips to make it through roster cuts. He's playing really well right now, while all Gifford can do is watch from the sideline until he can get back on the field. Regardless though, it's a position battle worth keeping an eye on.
Do you think LB Justin Phillips has done enough to secure a roster spot?
How Kris Richard May Help CB Michael Jackson Make Cowboys Roster
Cornerback Michael Jackson, one of the Dallas Cowboys' 5th-round picks in the 2019 NFL Draft, has not been standing out so far in training camp or preseason. But despite the slow start, the influence of Defensive Backs Coach Kris Richard could help keep Jackson on the 53-man roster this year.
While no team likes parting with their drafted rookies, it certainly happens. That's especially true for Day 3 players, even 5th rounders, and particularly when a team is as deep with talent right now as the 2019 Cowboys.
The cornerback position is one of Dallas' most loaded. They go four-deep with starting talent in Byron Jones, Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown, and Jourdan Lewis, which leaves just one or two roster spots for the remaining prospects.
Michael Jackson is in competition with veteran C.J. Goodwin and the intriguing Donovan Olumba. Both were with the team last year; Goodwin was a special teams contributor and Olumba was a valuable developmental asset on the practice squad.
So far this preseason, we've seen Goodwin shining on special teams and Olumba making plays at cornerback. Jackson hasn't stood out, unless you count jokes about thin he looks on the field.
In contrast, fellow 5th-round rookie Joe Jackson has been showing up at defensive end. Even if there were no suspension concerns with Robert Quinn and Randy Gregory, Joe Jackson has made himself very difficult to cut.
But despite not having that same momentum or energy around him yet, Michael Jackson may still find his way onto the 53-man roster. And that may have something to do with his position coach.
Since arriving in Dallas during the 2018 offseason, Kris Richard has quickly gained prominence beyond just his official role as the Defensive Backs Coach. He was working as the defensive play-caller last year and is expected to take over fully in 2020, assuming Rod Marinelli retires and Richard doesn't leave for a head coaching opportunity.
When Dallas selected Michael Jackson in the last draft, Jackson became the first cornerback or safety drafted by the Cowboys since Richard arrived. Given that it happened this year, with Richard's influence clearly high on the defense, one would assume that Kris had a big say in the decision to draft Jackson.
No, Richard certainly can't veto any decision made by the Joneses, Will McClay, Jason Garrett, or even Marinelli when it comes to roster management. But if he has any bias towards Jackson as his first draft pick in Dallas, Kris may fight for the rookie more than someone else.
We're all human; agendas come into play. Kris Richard may be more passionate about seeing Michael Jackson succeeding for a variety of reasons. He may pound the table for the team to keep Jackson louder than anyone else in the room.
That doesn't necessarily mean keeping Jackson over some other cornerback, either. The argument could be to go long at CB at the expense of another position; maybe only keeing two quarterbacks or eight offensive linemen to free up a roster spot.
This is purely speculative, of course. For all we know, Richard could be the first one who loses faith and votes to let Jackson go.
But given the situation and all factors involved, it's more likely that Kris Richard will be invested in seeing Michael Jackson succeed and sticking with the Cowboys in 2019. Hopefully, it's in the best interest of the team overall.
DL Kerry Hyder Impressive In Cowboys Week 2 Preseason Win
Kerry Hyder joined the Cowboys this offseason on a one year deal, and while the four-year NFL veteran has put up some solid tape in his time around the league, it was hard to project just what he could bring to the Cowboys defense.
Listed at 6'2" 270 pounds, Hyder is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line. Though the answer to "will he play tackle or end" seems to be "both" to this point in the preseason.
As he fights for his life on this deep defensive line, Kerry Hyder had himself a day in the Cowboys 14-10 victory over the Rams last weekend.
Hyder made an excellent play defending a screen pass in the first quarter, reading the play perfectly and reacting quickly to running back Darrell Henderson coming out of the backfield. Hyder also created some pressure on the quarterback, and finished with 3 combined tackles in very limited playing time.
Hyder's versatility is working well for him as he looks to make the final roster. Like a Tyrone Crawford type player, Hyder will be able to move inside and out depending on the situation. This allows the Cowboys to be flexible in how they structure their depth chart on defense, and in how they decide to rush the passer on third down.
A pass rushing package involving Robert Quinn and DeMarcus Lawrence on the edge with the combination of Hyder and Maliek Collins on the inside could turn out to be a very dangerous one for opposing offenses to deal with.
Rod Marinelli spoke to this versatility a couple of months ago, showing just how much he values what Kerry Hyder can bring to this team.
"Maybe you adjust him sometime, once in a while – in a one-on-one pass rush situation, stick him over a guard and start to get a feel for it.” - Rod Marinelli
Earlier this offseason, I wrote that Kerry Hyder could end up being Rod Marinelli's next great under-the-radar find on the defensive line. And if he continues to play with the hustle and awareness that he had on Saturday, he's going to make Rod look very smart in his evaluation.
Kerry Hyder is making it very difficult for the front office to let him go. And, at the end of the preseason, I do expect Kerry Hyder to find himself on the Cowboys' active roster. Especially considering how Mike White is playing at quarterback, and how his release could open up an extra spot at a different position group.
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