There’s been a lot of talk this week about a rumored training camp holdout by Ezekiel Elliott, with the Dallas Cowboys’ star running back seeking a renegotiated contract. If Zeke does actually hold out, I can’t help but wonder if the Cowboys’ handling of DeMarco Murray a few years ago isn’t a factor in his decision.
Quick history lesson; in 2014, Murray ran for the most yards (1,845) in Cowboys history for a single season. But that was also the final year of his rookie contract, and Dallas chose to let DeMarco leave in free agency when the two sides were unable to agree on new contract.
Murray had just turned 26 when he hit free agency, and his four years Dallas had not had consistent production or availability. 2014 was the first time he was able to play at such a high level, or played a full 16-game season.
As you might remember, Murray left and joined the Philadelphia Eagles under Chip Kelly. As with most things during Kelly’s time in Philly, it proved to be a disaster. DeMarco was released after one year and then had a couple of seasons in Tennessee before retiring.
The way it all turned out seemed to validate the Cowboys’ decision. Perhaps Murray’s big year in 2014 was more about adding Zack Martin and Ron Leary to the offensive line than DeMarco himself. He certainly didn’t look like the same player at any other point in his career.
But Ezekiel Elliott and his agent may not be too worried about all of those nuances. They may be looking at the simple fact that the Cowboys allowed one of the most productive RBs in football in 2014 to just walk away in free agency.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas will allow him to do the same.
There are some important differences to note between Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarco Murray. For one, Elliott’s been elite every season. He’s led the NFL in rushing yards-per-game the last three years.
Zeke has also been faultlessly durable, missing no games due to injury. Murray had already missed 11 games his first three years before we even got to 2014.
However, there are some similarities that can’t be ignored. While Elliott’s never missed time for health reasons, he missed six games in 2017 due to a suspension for a domestic violence accusation. He also came dangerously close to missing more time this year due to an incident with a security guard in Las Vegas during the offseason.
Availability is availability, whether it’s for behavioral issues or injuries. The team assumes the same risk either way.
Also, Elliott has had the same benefit of running behind this great Cowboys offensive line for the last three years. It hasn’t been quite as good as 2014, with Ron Leary never being completely replaced, but he hasn’t lacked for superior blocking compared to most NFL running backs.
Another factor; Zeke is due to turn 24 next week. That means he’d be 25 next year when playing on the 5th-year option, and about to turn 26 when he hits unrestricted free agency in 2021.
DeMarco Murray was also 26 when he hit free agency in 2015. And he’d only played four NFL seasons, while Zeke would have just finished his fifth.
I’m not saying that Murray and Elliott are the same player. Zeke has proven himself better over a long period of time and with less talent in front and around him. He’s carried the offense without Tony Romo’s passing or Jason Witten and Dez Bryant still in their prime, like DeMarco had in 2014.
But in 2015, with the prospect of competing for a Super Bowl well in reach, the Cowboys decided to gamble on the shaky Darren McFadden rather than pay DeMarco Murray market value. They trusted their system and offensive line to produce a successful running back.
Zeke may be worried that Dallas is preparing to take that same approach with him. They can keep playing him at a discount this year and in 2020, when even his raise to $9 million is still a bargain compared to guys like Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell.
In 2021 the Cowboys could then hit Elliott with the franchise tag. He’d make a ton that year, but without any of the long-term security that other elite RBs are currently enjoying.
In that scenario, Zeke would now be turning 27 the next time free agency rolled around. And the window for getting a multi-year contract may have passed.
That’s three more seasons for a major injury to finally find him. If nothing else, it’s about 45-50 more games of NFL mileage that could scare other teams off.
Again, this notion of Ezekiel Elliott holding out is just a rumor right now. It may have been floated just to get some easy clicks at Pro Football Talk, which is hardly a new strategy for them.
But in all fairness, you can see why Zeke might be considering it. There’s a fair reason to question the Cowboys long-term loyalty, and it goes back to how they handled their last star running back.