Most signs point to 2022 as a make-or-break season for Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and his future in Dallas. While the team has expressed loyalty toward Zeke in some offseason comments, the Cowboys are clearly leaving their options open.
One of the clearest signs that a team is considering moving on, especially given Dallas' modern history, is when they avoid restructuring the player's contract. The Cowboys have left Elliott's $18.2 million cap hit untouched despite having four years left on the deal to move money around.
This wasn't the case with QB Dak Prescott or G Zack Martin. Dallas was happy to restructure their contracts in March, feeling secure in their long-term futures. The fact that Elliott's deal was not altered was an indirect statement about his job security.
Remember, a contract restructure means converting a player's base salary in the current year into a signing bonus. This lowers his cap hit for the season but increases the “dead money” in future years of the deal. The team gets more cap space in the present but loses flexibility down the road if they want to release or trade the player.
By not restructuring deals on big names like Elliott or Tyron Smith this year, Dallas is basically saying that they want to preserve the ability to release them in 2023. As currently structured, Zeke's deal offers about $5 million as an outright cut and $11 million if released after June 1st next year.
The best recent example of this was with former WR Dez Bryant, who despite a huge cap in 2017 was not restructured as his play and health were starting to decline. Sure enough, Bryant was released the following April. While many were shocked by the star receiver's departure, others had seen the writing on the wall a year earlier.
If the Cowboys do release Ezekiel Elliott next spring it likely won't be as surprising. His declining performance, while still good enough for over 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2021, has brought his contract question for the last two years. Many believe Dallas could get the same production for a fraction of the price.
Currently unable to move on from Zeke without a massive spike in his 2022 cap number, Dallas has no choice right now but to express support for their star runner. But if Elliott doesn't get back to past form then the team may start singing a very different tune.
Make no mistake; Elliott's contract would've been restructured along with Prescott's and Martin's if the team was entirely confident in him.
The Cowboys can say anything they want to the media but actions speak louder. Ezekiel Elliott is clearly playing for his job in 2022 and hopefully that, plus a healthy knee, will help him to get back to franchise-level performance.