For three seasons now, Ezekiel Elliott has been the best runner in the NFL. The Dallas Cowboys will continue to lean on him in 2019, but the rest of the running back depth chart could use some work this offseason.
Along with Zeke's backups, the fullback position may also need to be addressed. But given how little Jamize Olawale was used last year, Dallas might look at combining some of the roles going forward.
We can't just skip Elliott and go to these other issues, though. He's entering the final year of his rookie contract, putting some big decisions in front of the Cowboys as far as a long-term extension or whether or not to exercise the fifth-year option.
The latter decision must be made soon. The deadline for fifth-year options on the class of 2016 is May 3rd of this year. We now know that the amount for Zeke would be about $9 million for 2020. He would then become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, barring any other contract extension.
Dallas will almost certainly exercise that option. It's basically a discounted franchise tag for them, which is one of the team-friendly aspects of using a first-round draft pick. It also secures Zeke's rights for two more years and gives the team some leverage in any long-term negotiations.
What's more, with Elliott's 2019 cap hit already at $7.94 million, that fifth-year amount won't be any big blow to the 2020 salary cap.
Whatever happens here, we know for sure that Ezekiel Elliott will once again be the featured player in the Cowboys' offense this season. Now let's get to the moving parts.
After over three seasons with Dallas, Rod Smith is about to become an unrestricted free agent. He's been a solid backup for Zeke and a standout special teams player. Still just 27, Smith should be a useful addition to someone's roster.
Perhaps that roster should be the Cowboys. Smith had added value for Dallas given his system experience, plus he has the versatility to play some fullback.
Last season's fullback, Olawale, played on less than 11% of the team's total offensive snaps. Is that usage rate really worth keeping a dedicated FB on the roster?
In past years, we've seen Dallas utilize one of its tight ends as a backfield blocker. They could do the same with one of their backup RBs, giving them more total value out of a single roster spot.
If the Cowboys like Rod's blocking ability enough then perhaps he can be that guy. However, it is worth nothing that he was beaten out by Kevin Smith for the FB role back in 2016. Perhaps blocking was the issue then.
The point here is that if Rod Smith or some other free agent can provide RB depth while also covering those relatively few snaps at FB, that would be a great use of resources for Dallas going forward.
One guy hoping to finally stick around is Darius Jackson, who's on his third stint with the Cowboys after being a sixth-round pick in 2016. Other teams have claimed him off waivers and signed him off the practice squad over the last three years, but Dallas keep bringing him back.
Darius has the speed to do some damage with clear running lanes. Hopefully, the Cowboys getting Travis Frederick pack and seeing some second-year growth from Connor Williams will provide just that. It could increase Jackson's value to them as a reserve.
One issue for guys like Rod or Darius will be a loaded free agent market for running backs, giving Dallas plenty of options with more experience and/or upside.
As hard as it is to take a talent like Zeke off the field, it may be time for the Cowboys to start considering spreading out his workload a little. If they truly plan on a long-term relationship with Elliott then they risk running his wheels off at his current number of carries.
Making an investment in a talented number-two back, either through free agency or the draft, would make sense if Dallas intends to keep Zeke beyond 2021.
Not only will it help save some wear and tear on Elliott, but there comes a point that you have to be worried about a serious injury. Even the most durable players can have that one bad hit, and nobody wants to see this offense trying to function without a solid running game.
So even though Ezekiel Elliott commands the heavy focus, and looks to be here at least the next two seasons, the Cowboys still clearly have some work to do at running back. They need to figure out the backup spot this offseason, as well as the fullback role, and make sure they're covered for all situations.
They've put far too much emphasis on the running game to ever take it lightly.
5 Worst Contracts for 2019 Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys have done great work the last few years of shedding bad contracts and getting out of "salary cap hell." However, even this relative fiscal paradise of 2019 isn't perfect. Today, we're going to look at the five worst deals that Dallas still has on the books.
These contracts are only active as of now, in the middle of May, and could be gone by the time we gets to Week One. We'll discuss those possibilities as we go through each player.
What you'll realize fairly quickly with this exercise is that it's a stretch to even say the Cowboys have five "bad" contracts on the team at this point. That's how well the front office has done in learning from the past and getting things to a much more manageable and equitable point throughout the roster.
Maybe that changes in a few years. Some of the big contracts on our All-Pro offensive linemen may lose value as those players start to decline with age and/or health issues. Or perhaps the upcoming new contracts for Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, and others will turn out to be retrospective mistakes.
But those are conversations and articles for future offseason. For here and now, 2019, here are the five worst contracts on the Dallas Cowboys roster.
DL Tyrone Crawford - $10.1 million cap hit
I know I've been picking on Crawford a lot lately, but that's what happens when you have easily the worst contract on the roster. Tyrone has the second-highest cap hit on the defense and sixth overall on the entire team, and that's an obvious imbalance compared to where he ranks among the Cowboys' top players.
This situation isn't Crawford's fault. Dallas thought they were making a shrewd move by giving Tyrone a sizable contract back in 2015. They expected him to blossom as the 3-tech DT under Rod Marinelli.
That boom never happened, and as a result Crawford's contract ultimately became a bust. He's been valuable as a leader and having DE/DT flex, but he's never been a top player on defense even when he was the highest paid.
I wrote more extensively on what Tyrone's future with the Cowboys might be, especially with the June-1st date looming for potential roster cuts. His job security has taken some big hits lately with the drafting of Trysten Hill and now legal issues, which could result in a minor suspension for Crawford in 2019.
We'll see if Tyrone Crawford makes it to the 2019 roster. He still has value with his versatility and generally solid play, but that overpaying contract could ultimately be his demise.
WR Allen Hurns - $6.25 million cap hit
The only other contract which is truly "bad" for the Cowboys belongs to veteran receiver Allen Hurns. It gives him the 11th-highest cap hit on the roster, and this for a guy who projects to be no higher than fourth on the WR depth chart.
The week before free agency opened in March, Dallas picked up an option to keep Hurns in 2019. It's always felt like an insurance move; Hurns can be released with just $1.25 million in dead money at any point this offseason.
Dallas is likely hanging onto Hurns until they get through the preseason without any injuries to Amari Cooper or Michael Gallup. It'd be nice to have Allen if something happens to them; he has plenty of starting experience and can be an every-down receiver. Guys like Randall Cobb or Tavon Austin aren't built that way, while Noah Brown isn't experienced enough.
Assuming everyone gets to September intact then I expect Hurns will be released. It's hard to imagine Dallas carrying him as a backup with that cap hit, and especially if they have younger guys like Brown or Cedrick Wilson that they want to utilize.
So no, Hurns' contract shouldn't cost the Cowboys for long. If he stays then it's because he's needed for a starting role, in which case $6 million is reasonable. But if he's going to spend most of the year on the sideline, Dallas has an easy out that I expect they'll utilize soon.
LB Sean Lee - $6 million cap hit
This is another one where how bad the contract is could shift depending on how much the player is needed in 2019. Even with a negotiated pay cut, Sean Lee's still making more than most of the starting defense.
Paying Lee this much to play SAM and then backup Smith and Vander Esch on the nickel is a bit high, even for what he brings as a mentor and coach on the field. But Dallas was willing to overpay for the intangibles, plus the hope that Lee could still play at a high level if called upon.
The biggest concern with Sean Lee, as it's ever been, is his health. He can still ball but has reverted to injury-prone issues in recent seasons. Perhaps a lesser role with fewer snaps will help in that area.
Again, I don't even know if I'd call this a "bad" deal. We have yet to see how much Dallas plans to rotate Lee with their young studs, and he brings things to the LB room that a guy like Damien Wilson never could.
The major liability here is if Lee gets hurt, in which case Dallas basically has a solid chunk of cap space tied up in an assistant coach.
TE Jason Witten - $4.25 million cap hit
You can apply some similar logic to Witten's deal from what we just discussed with Sean Lee. If he contributes on the field then it's not a bad deal. But if age and time away from the game have caused Jason's skills to slip too far, then this is a lot of money to pay for a backup TE.
Like Lee, Witten will hopefully offer a great deal as a mentor for Blake Jarwin, Dalton Schultz, and any other young tight ends. He can't make them any more talented, but he can at least help maximize whatever potential they have.
But again, without actual on-field contributions, that mean you're spending valuable salary cap space on coaching. That money could've gone to someone like Jared Cook for a more simple and immediate boost to your offensive firepower.
As we said at the outset, most of these contracts are only conditionally bad. If Witten's year off allowed him to heal and rest and come back with renewed vigor in 2019, then it could wind up being a great deal for the Cowboys.
Father Time may ultimately be undefeated, but he doesn't win every round. Hopefully Jason can fight him off for at least one more year.
DE Taco Charlton - $2.74 million cap hit
Taco's disappointing start to his NFL career has made his rookie contact, which is usually team-friendly, a bit of dead weight on the Cowboys' books. Unless Charlton take a big step forward this year, the Cowboys are stuck paying him like a significant contributor for the next two seasons.
Dallas would get no cap relief cutting Taco this year; his cap hit stays roughly the same if cut after June 1st. It would also push another $1.35 million in dead money onto 2020. Therefore, unless the situation between team and player has become truly toxic, or a trade partner emerges, the Cowboys should hang on to their 2017 first-round pick at least thru 2019.
Ideally, Charlton will emerge this year as a more consistent and motivated roleplayer. There's little chance that he'll start with Robert Quinn coming in, but Charlton could still claim the role of a major rotation piece if he's had some more development.
If that happens, Taco's deal will become far less worrisome. That's a modest salary for a solid backup at most positions, and especially at defensive end.
If Charlton doesn't improve, though, Dallas will finally be able to get some savings if they cut his deal in 2020. In that scenario, he probably isn't around long enough to make this list a year from now.
~ ~ ~
What makes a contract bad or good is subjective. You might look at those huge cap hits on deals for guys like DeMarcus Lawrence or Zack Martin and think they're the biggest problems. But if you're getting All-Pro play at fair market value, you really can't criticize those salary numbers.
It will be interesting to see what happens the next few years with guys like Travis Frederick and Tyron Smith, whose health issues could change how we perceive their contracts. Both are still young enough to play at a high level, but could we adding one of them to this list in the next year or two?
A few years from now, we make look back on 2019 as an anomaly. Having to reach to find enough contracts to make this list is a great problem to have.
I just hope it stays that way.
Why Cowboys Should Make Signing RB Jay Ajayi a Top Priority
Despite adding Tony Pollard and Mike Weber through the 2019 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys still don't have a clear-cut running back to back up Ezekiel Elliott this season. I like the upside of both of these rookies, but I think it would be wise on the Cowboys part to bring in a more established player to become their RB2 this season.
Enter Jay Ajayi, the former Philadelphia Eagles and Miami Dolphins running back.
I really believe Running Back Jay Ajayi is exactly the kind of RB2 the Dallas Cowboys need, and currently don't have, to backup Ezekiel Elliott this year. He's an established veteran with a proven track record, but has unfortunately struggled with injuries throughout his career. This is exactly the kind of low risk/high reward kind of move Dallas likes to make when signing free agents.
We all know the Cowboys like to sign free agents on their own terms. That usually means they are cost-effective players that won't impact the compensatory pick formula. Surprisingly, Jay Ajayi fits into both of those categories right now.
Signing Ajayi shouldn't break the bank for the Dallas Cowboys. They should be able to sign him on a one-year prove it deal because of his recent injury history. He sustained a torn ACL early in the season last year with the Philadelphia Eagles, but is supposed to be ready by the time the 2019 season kicks off.
I don't know what you or the Dallas Cowboys think about this, but I think all of this makes just too much sense for it not to happen. The Cowboys would be getting a starting caliber RB to backup Zeke and Ajayi would be receiving a great opportunity to potentially resurrect his career.
Now, I know Ajayi is probably holding out for a starting job for some NFL team, but I just don't see that happening for him. Coming to Dallas and forming an excellent 1-2 punch with Ezekiel Elliott is an opportunity he shouldn't pass up, especially with Zeke's recent off the field incident where he was handcuffed/detained (not arrested) at a musical festival in Las Vegas.
The NFL has shown in the past they are willing to throw the book at Zeke, despite little to no evidence supporting their case. This most recent incident allows the league to do just that once again, meaning No. 21 could be looking at a possible suspension.
With that in mind, the Cowboys backup RB situation is even more concerning. I don't think I would completely trust Tony Pollard or Mike Weber to handle the workload in Zeke's potential absence. Jay Ajayi on the other hand is a different story. I don't think there would be much of a dip in production with him in a lineup.
Like I said earlier though, I don't know where the Dallas Cowboys stand in regards to Jay Ajayi, but this really seems like a win-win situation for everybody involved. If I were the one making the decisions, I would get on the phone with Ajayi's representatives immediately to try to bring him aboard.
Do you like the idea of Jay Ajayi as Ezekiel Elliott's backup running back?
Dallas Cowboys Should Pursue Recently Released DT Gerald McCoy
The Dallas Cowboys have been reinforcing their defensive interior all offseason and look to be in a good position as they get ready to begin offseason training activities and minicamp. Yesterday, I wrote about the possibility of trading for New York Jets Defensive Tackle Leonard Williams. Another defensive tackle has now become available, long-time Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Tackle Gerald McCoy.
Per a report from Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times, the Bucs are going to release McCoy after nine seasons with the club.
BREAKING: DT Gerald McCoy has been informed by the Bucs of their plans to release him after nine seasons. The team decided not to pay him the $13-million salary he was owed for 2019.
McCoy is the definition of a cap casualty as he was set to make $13 million on the cap this year. At age 30 in 2018, McCoy still had six sacks as the Buccaneers 3-technique defensive tackle.
Throughout his career, he's been one of the more productive defensive tackles in the league. From 2012 to 2017 he was selected to the Pro Bowl six times and was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2013.
Since 2012, McCoy's averaged 7.2 sacks, 36.8 total tackles, 9.85 tackles for loss, and 17.85 quarterback hits a season. Over the last three seasons, McCoy's averaged just under seven sacks a season. In 2018, he finished with 38 total pressures, which was 19th among all interior defensive linemen. Only Tyrone Crawford from the Cowboys had nearly as many total pressures on the interior with 37.
Though the Cowboys have brought in Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, and Trysten Hill to fortify a defensive interior with Maliek Collins, Antwaun Woods, and Tyrone Crawford, Gerald McCoy would make an excellent addition to their rotation. Mike Fisher of 247 Sports is reporting that the Cowboys currently have "very little interest" in the defensive tackle.
That's plausible. The Dallas Cowboys have a ton of depth on the defensive line at the moment, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't pursue a talented player such as Gerald McCoy. McCoy has been an excellent 3-tech but also has the size to contribute at 1-tech on passing downs if you need him to.
The Dallas Cowboys defensive line has a ton of depth and it may not make sense to bring in a guy like McCoy, but they should. Much like the trade for Robert Quinn, you're putting your eggs in the 2019 Super Bowl basket and trying to maximize the talent that you have on the roster this year. They're a team primed to make a deep run in January and McCoy can help them do that.
As in everything, it will come down to the price tag. However, given that the Dallas Cowboys currently have just under $20 million available on the 2019 salary cap, they can get a deal done with McCoy and continue working on the long-term contracts for their star core of players.
Gerald McCoy makes the defense better. He's another guy along the defensive line, in addition to DeMarcus Lawrence and Robert Quinn, that the offensive line has to think about. He makes things easier for everyone at every level of the defense and shouldn't cost a ton to sign on a one-year deal.
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