Way back in 2019, the Cowboys broke the cardinal sin of team building. They signed a running back to a long-term extension. With a six-year deal worth 90 million dollars, Ezekiel Elliott was slated to be in Dallas until 2027 which would be his age 32 season.
This extension was not without merit, however. With 4,048 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns from 2016 to 2018, he quickly became one of the league's marquee ball carriers. He was even selected as a First-Team All-Pro in his rookie season. As such, the contract extension felt inevitable. After all, they selected him with the fourth overall pick and he had done nothing but produce since then. Owner Jerry Jones even called him “the team's best player”.
Therein lies a major problem with running back extensions as a whole. While they often don't work out (David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, Le'Veon Bell, Doug Martin, etc.), they are often about messaging. Is Elliott worth the 18.2 million dollars he cost the Cowboys last season? No, he is not and no running back is. However, what kind of message would it send the locker room if they just didn't sign the face of the team in the middle of his prime? It simply had to be done, regardless of the practicality of it.
Dealing with the consequences
The Cowboys have already felt the effects of this deal. The second-largest deal of any running back in the league, he counts for 7.79% of the Dallas salary cap. His 18,220,000 cap hit last season was the largest at the position by over three million dollars. This deal has caused the Cowboys to lose key players in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
Cornerback Byron Jones is one of these players. A former first-round selection, he was lured away to Miami with a 5 year, $82,500,000 contract. Dallas never had a chance at retaining one of their best defensive players, largely due to the massive contract handed to “Zeke”. In 2022, Dallas appears destined to lose Tight End, Dalton Schultz. After a break-out season in 2021, one of Dak Prescott's favorite targets will be playing elsewhere after an 808-yard, eight-touchdown season. With their cap space currently in the negatives, they just don't have the resources to pull these deals off.
Of course, Elliott isn't the only large contract on the team. In fact, he has the fourth-highest average salary on the team. The reason his contract sticks out, however, is the replaceability of his position. The Cowboys themselves have proven it with the addition of Tony Pollard. While Elliott finished with more yards and touchdowns than Pollard, he did so on 137 more touches. Pollard however did finish with more yards per attempt and flashed more ability as a receiver.
As free agency approaches in the NFL, the Cowboys will have moves to make in order to just get under the cap. With one of the league's worst cap situations, the staggering number being paid to their starting running back will hinder their ability to continue to add talent.