There are few things Dallas Cowboys fans enjoy more than watching Ezekiel Elliott play football. Few NFL players are more dynamic with the ball in their hands, so it's no surprise that Dallas features Zeke heavily in the offense. But could that heavy workload hurt Elliott's career in the long run?
After 11 weeks of the 2018 season, Zeke leads all running backs with 217 carries. The next closest is the Rams' Todd Gurley with 210 carries, and then Pittsburgh's James Conner at 186.
Elliott also has the most catches on the Cowboys at 47, with Cole Beasley right behind him at 46 receptions. That's a total of 264 touches already for Zeke with five games still to go, which computes to about 384 touches by the end of the year.
That's a lot for the modern NFL running back. In 15 games last year while winning the Offensive Player of the Year award, Todd Gurley had 343 combined runs and receptions.
The history of RBs tells us that years of high volume in touches eventually take a toll. Sometimes, the drop-off comes very quickly.
Perhaps the most famous example is former Chiefs' great Larry Johnson. In 2006, Johnson had 416 carries and 66 catches. The next season, Larry only played 8 games and never looked like the same player again the rest of his career.
Granted, that was 12 years ago. Sports science has developed since then and allows for better recovery from injuries and better overall understanding of physical preservation and development.
But just last year, we saw Arizona's David Johnson lose an entire season after a huge workload the year before. In 2016, Johnson had 293 carries and 80 catches for the Cardinals. The next year, he didn't even make it out of Week One without suffering a season-ending injury.
Coincidence? Maybe, but there are more than enough examples that you can't just ignore the potential effect on Elliott.
As many times as Zeke leaves defenders in his dust, he also doesn't run away from contact. One of Elliott's best qualities is his willingness to grind out tough yards, turning 2-3 yard runs into 4-5 yarders with pure grit.
We love that about him, but it also increases his wear and tear. It makes those many touches, on average, tougher on his physically than some other running backs.
This may seem a silly topic when we're discussing a 23-year-old. Comparatively, Larry Johnson was 27 and David was 26 when they had their bad years.
But in the very near future, Dallas will have to make a big decision a bout Zeke's long-term value. His rookie deal expires after the 2019 season.
Because Elliott was a first-round pick, Dallas will have a fifth-year option for 2020. Based on recent trends and projections, that amount should be around $9-$10 million for a running back.
The Cowboys should be happy to pay that for one year of Zeke's services, assuming he's still an elite performer at that time. He'll still be just 25 that season.
But beyond that, when it's time to start thinking about a long-term deal, what will all of the touches from 2016-2020 mean for Elliott's future?
We look at football players a lot like we do automobiles. Age is one factor, but mileage is another. How much stock you put in one number over the other really comes down to personal preference and guesswork, because the ultimate answer is as individual as each make and model.
Sadly, football players longevity and physical reliability is even less predictable than cars.
If Ezekiel Elliott still looks as healthy and spry as ever over the next few years, the Cowboys may have enough confidence to make him an extended deal. They would likely structure the contract to give themselves a good out once he gets closer to 30, in case things do go south.
It is worth remembering, though, what happened between Dallas and DeMarco Murray just a few seasons ago.
In 2015, a year before Dallas drafted Elliott, Murray was coming off a historic year for Cowboys running backs. He'd rushed for 1,845 yards in 2014 and broken Emmitt Smith's record for a single season.
But also that year, Murray had 392 carries and 57 catches. Between that heavy workload and an inconsistent track record before 2014, Dallas elected not to pay DeMarco like a top NFL running back. He walked away in free agency, getting an attractive deal from the Eagles.
Murray's one year in Philly was a bust, and the curse of the high number of touches the year before was validated once more. DeMarco had trouble staying healthy and didn't look like the same guy, regardless of the switch in offensive schemes.
Even though Murray had a solid 2016 year for the Titans, he never looked like the stud we saw in that last year with Dallas. The Cowboys were proven right for not making the long-term investment.
Assuming decision time on Ezekiel Elliott comes in 2021, after the rookie deal and 5th-year option season, then Zeke will be just a year younger than Murray was when Dallas let him walk. And he'll have had a lot more touches over those five years than DeMarco had to begin his NFL Career.
Could the Cowboys play hardball again? Would they be willing let Zeke walk, happy with the 4-5 elite years they got out of their first-round pick, and then draft his replacement?
That decision isn't upon them today, but every carry and catch between now and then could impact what they choose to do. It makes Elliott's ongoing workload worth monitoring as his Cowboys career continues.
Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts
The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.
The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.
Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.
Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.
While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.
Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.
The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.
Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.
The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.
Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.
Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts
Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.
My how things have changed.
Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.
As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.
Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?
By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.
All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.
On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.
Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.
The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.
Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?
The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.
According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.
Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.
In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.
The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.
Big Games from Explosive Duo?
The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.
Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.
Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances
Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.
Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.
They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.
Rookie Linebackers Dominating
We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.
Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.
Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.
Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.
Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.
This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...
Cowboys 24 - Colts 20
Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section.
Jaguars Waive Barry Church; Could Cowboys Bring Him Back?
Veteran safety Barry Church was released today by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Could he return home to the Dallas Cowboys, where he spent his first seven seasons?
Despite his leadership and consistency on defense, Dallas allowed Church to leave in free agency when Jacksonville gave him a lucrative deal. But if he clears waivers, could the Cowboys consider bring him back for depth and support during their likely playoff run?
Jane Slater of the NFL Network reported on this potential reunion:
Cowboys haven't reached out to S Barry Church but I'm told they are discussing the possibility of bringing him back to Dallas according to a source informed. Church, 30, was released by the Jags today and is familiar with the system having played there from 2010-2016.
The Cowboys have had solid play from their current starting safeties, Jeff Heath and Xavier Woods. Neither is a star, but the duo has not been a liability during the team's current five-game winning streak.
Church was a similar player, reliable if never exceptional, during his time in Dallas. He could be a nice insurance policy for the playoffs if something happened to one of the starters.
Barry knows the system. He never played for Kris Richard, but he was with Rod Marinelli for three seasons before leaving in free agency.
According to reports out of Jacksonville, Church is being released because the team wants to go with younger, cheaper players now that their season is over. There is no known injury keeping Barry from playing.
Of course, Dallas would have to make room on the roster to pick Church up. They could third-year prospect Darian Thompson, who is the current fourth man at safety.
Barry Church must now go through the 24-hour waiver process. A team may claim him, including the Cowboys. We'll see what the future holds.
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