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Locked Up: Prioritizing Long-Term Deals for the Dallas Cowboys

John Williams

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Dallas Cowboys Still Plagued by Red Zone Struggles

The Dallas Cowboys front office decision makers are going to have a busy offseason in 2019. They've got several important pieces to get under contract as well as players that need contract extensions.  DeMarcus Lawrence is a free agent that will likely sign a big deal and may get the franchise tag to prevent other teams from offering a lucrative contract to walk away from the Dallas Cowboys. Other players like Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, Byron Jones, and Ezekiel Elliott have been mentioned as possible targets for contract extensions.

The reason the Dallas Cowboys are looking to hand out extensions to some of those guys mentioned above, is one, because they earned it, and two, because if you pay them a year early, there's a good chance you get them at a better rate than if you pay them once they're free. If the Cowboys wait till Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, and Byron Jones all become free agents in the 2020 offseason, they'll have to worry about other teams jacking up the price on their players. Remember this past offseason when Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins signed deals with new teams for more than $14 million per year. It's always better to have sole negotiating rights when attempting to get your players under contract.

The Dallas Cowboys are likely going to get all these guys done this offseason, it's just a matter of when. It's always fun spending someone else's money, so here's how I'd prioritize getting their deals done.

1. DeMarcus Lawrence, Defensive End

Another year and another Pro Bowl appearance for DeMarcus Lawrence who followed up his 14.5 sack 2017 season with 10.5 sacks this season and was just as electric against the run. The Dallas Cowboys used the franchise tag on Lawrence last season and he played the full season on it, betting that he would have another stand out year.

That he did.

Lawrence sack numbers may have gone down, but his effectiveness was still on display every week. He's one of the best EDGE players in the NFL and is about to get paid like it. The Dallas Cowboys will look to get a long-term deal done before the start of free agency. Both Jerry Jones and Jason Garrett have commented on the importance of locking up the best player on their defense. If they aren't able to get a deal done before free agency starts, they'll franchise tag him again and then hope to get his long-term deal finalized before the tag locks in sometime in July.

2. Dak Prescott, Quarterback

I know many people in Cowboys Nation aren't excited about the idea of extending Dak Prescott, but here's what you need to know. He's a good quarterback still developing and has gotten better each season he's been in the NFL.

Dak's about to get paid.

As I outlined a couple of weeks ago, Prescott has done enough to earn one of the top contracts in the NFL. He's been the quarterback of the team that's won the NFC East two out of the last three seasons and has been to the Pro Bowl twice in his young career. In 2018, Dak set career highs in completions, attempts, and passing yards, all the while getting sacked a rate nearly double his previous career high.

Locking up your young quarterback sets the stage for just about everything else on the offense. It creates an identity. Get Dak Prescott done and quit worrying about the face of your franchise for the next five seasons.

Cowboys' Revenge Against Atlanta Hinges on These 3 Key Matchups 1

Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper (19) in action against the Philadelphia Eagles during an NFL football game on Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

3. Amari Cooper, Wide Receiver

The Dallas Cowboys have another year of Amari Cooper under contract for the 2019 season, but he showed his value in the last half of the 2018 season. After coming over from the Oakland Raiders, from week nine through 17, Cooper had 53 receptions on 73 targets for 725 yards and six touchdowns. At a 16 game pace, Cooper would have had 135 targets for 94 receptions, 1,289 yards and 11 touchdowns. Any question on whether he's a lead receiver for an NFL team should have been answered by his second half with the Dallas Cowboys.

Of his 1,005 receiving yards, 725 came with the Cowboys while six of his seven touchdowns on the season came after he arrived in Dallas.

Cooper's game fits excellently with Dak who looks to find the open receiver in his progression. Cooper is always open. He creates big windows with his route running ability and displayed excellent hands throughout the season.

The offense got better when Cooper came over and that's no coincidence. With a full offseason to work together with Dak Prescott, the Cowboys will get even more out of Cooper in 2019. Lock your quarterback up and lock his favorite target up at the same time and prosper.

4. Byron Jones, Corner Back

The Dallas Cowboys finally found a role that suits their 2015 first round draft pick, Byron Jones. He played excellent this season at corner back. Byron Jones is a corner back.

Pro Football Focus rated Byron Jones the fifth best corner back in the 2018 season among players that played at lead 600 snaps. Though he did not record an interception, and that's something that you hope will improve with more comfort at the position, he was tied for 10th in the NFL at the corner in pass break ups. He allowed a reception on only 53.6% of the attempts that went Jones' direction, which among corners, was good for ninth in the NFL.

Jones had really nice games against some of the NFL's best in 2018:

  • Week 2 vs Odell Beckham Jr.: 1 target, 0 receptions
  • Week 5 vs DeAndre Hopkins: 5 targets, 4 receptions, 74 yards
  • Week 10 vs Zach Ertz: 2 targets, 2 receptions, 24 yards
  • Week 11 vs Julio Jones: 3 targets, 1 reception, 19 yards
  • Week 13 vs Michael Thomas: 2 targets, 0 receptions
  • Week 14 vs Zach Ertz: 1 target, 0 receptions
  • Week 15 vs T.Y. Hilton: 1 target, 1 reception, 8 yards
  • Week 16 vs Mike Evans: 5 targets, 4 receptions, 72 yards, 0 touchdowns

Each of the players above are in the upper echelon of their position and Byron Jones only allowed a player to gain more than 25 yards in his coverage twice. Week five against DeAndre Hopkins and Week 16 against Mike Evans. Jones shut out Michael Thomas and Odell Beckham Jr., and held Julio Jones and T.Y. Hilton to just one catch each.

It was a really nice year for Byron Jones in his first full season at corner back and he was rewarded with a Pro Bowl appearance. A nice contract should be coming his way this offseason.

5. Ezekiel Elliott, Running Back

The Dallas Cowboys hit a home run when they drafted Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in 2016. He's been as good as anyone in Cowboys Nation could have hoped for. Elliott's led the NFL in rushing twice in his three-year career and in each of those seasons, he only played 15 games as the coaching staff opted to sit him with nothing to play for week 17.

There was a report at the end of the regular season that Ezekiel Elliott wanted to be extended this offseason as opposed to waiting until the 2020 offseason. The Cowboys have a few options with Elliott. They can extend him, place the first round pick fifth-year option on him, or allow him to play out his contract.

It's no guarantee that the Cowboys would offer Elliott a second contract after the 2020 season. If they're going to sign him to an extension, the time is now. He's 23 years old and an extension now would mean that his contract would run out around age 27 or 28, which is generally the age for running back drop off.

Elliott's coming off a season where he led the NFL in rushing and more than doubled his previous career highs in targets and receptions, and finished with more than 2,000 total yards on the season.

The Dallas Cowboys don't have to do anything with Ezekiel Elliott, but  if they're intending to have him signed through his prime years, it makes a lot of sense to get him done now.

✭ ✭ ✭ ✭ ✭

The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of money to spend this offseason getting some of their own locked up to long-term deals. They'll be working with the player's representatives to find numbers that work for both sides over the next few months. Locking in their core players for the foreseeable future is paramount to the Cowboys' window being extended for the next five years.



Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could. Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.

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Is Ezekiel Elliott the Most Dominant Running Back in the NFL?

John Williams

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Safe to Say, Ezekiel Elliott Not an Offensive Line Product

There's no player in football that is more hotly debated at the moment than Dallas Cowboys Running Back Ezekiel Elliott. Though much of the debate surrounds his potential contract extension, which would likely make him the highest-paid running back in the NFL, there's also been a lot of debate about his standing as the best running back in the NFL.

On Thursday, Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox released his list of the most dominant players at each position. It's a fantastic read and not just because he listed Ezekiel Elliott as the most dominant running back in the NFL.

It's certainly easy to see where he's coming from despite the debate that rages across the NFL's fanbases. Ezekiel Elliott's lead the NFL in rushing two of the three season's he's been in the league. Both of those seasons, Elliott only played 15 games, getting the benefit of the Cowboys playoff positioning being solidified prior to week 17. In 2017, he would have probably ran away with the league's rushing title again, which would make him the three-time defending rushing champion heading into 2019.

In that 2017 season when he missed six games and had a game against the Denver Broncos where he only rushed for seven yards on nine carries, Elliott still finished in the top 10 in rushing.

In 2018, he bested Saquon Bakley by 127 yards rushing. Had Elliott played in the week 17 finale last season and rushed for his season average, he would have won the rushing title by more than 200 yards. And he did that in what many considered to be a down season for Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack. Pro Football Focus even graded Elliott as the 30th best running back for 2018.

In 2018, Elliott had 2,000 total yards, besting his 2016 number of 1,994 total yards as a rookie. His rushing total was down in 2018 from 2016, but he still had an excellent season.

No disrespect to Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Le'Veon Bell, or Chrisitan McCaffrey, but they don't have the credentials that Ezekiel Elliott brings to the table. Those guys are great running backs in their own right, but Elliott has lead the NFL in rushing in two of the three seasons he's been in the league and would have probably lead the league in 2017 had he not been suspended.

Per Game Table
Rushing Receiving
Rk Player From To Att Yds TD Rec Yds TD
1 Saquon Barkley 2018 2018 16.3 81.7 0.7 5.7 45.1 0.3
2 Le'Veon Bell 2015 2017 21.1 94.4 0.6 5.6 42.6 0.1
3 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 2018 21.7 101.2 0.7 3.4 30.0 0.2
4 Todd Gurley 2015 2018 18.0 78.4 0.8 3.2 32.5 0.2
5 Alvin Kamara 2017 2018 10.1 52.0 0.7 5.2 49.5 0.3
6 Christian McCaffrey 2017 2018 10.5 47.9 0.3 5.8 47.4 0.3
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/18/2019.

Since 2015, only Le'Veon Bell has averaged more total yards per game than Elliott, but Elliott's close and he's not used as much in the passing game as Bell. Only Todd Gurley has a higher average of rushing touchdowns per game than Elliott.

Elliott's 3.4 receptions per game through the first three seasons of his career is only slightly better than Todd Gurley who ranks sixth among this group of players. The Dallas Cowboys attempted to get Elliott more involved in 2018 but didn't work him downfield enough in his targets for him to be anything more than a dump-off option. In 2019, the Dallas Cowboys should work to get him running more intermediate routes in the passing game because as we saw in the Detroit game last season, Elliott's got really good hands.

Historically, Elliott is off to a great start to his career. His first three years in the NFL compare quite favorably to two Hall of Famers and one of the most dynamic running backs of the early 21st century.

No player with more than 100 career attempts in the NFL has averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott.

Think about that for a second. Through his first three seasons, he's averaged more rushing yards per game than Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, Terrell Davis, Eric Dickerson, Adrian Peterson, Tony Dorsett, Walter Payton, and the list goes on and on.

If you look at what he's done compared to other players during their first three years. Only Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, and Edgerrin James averaged more rushing yards per game than Ezekiel Elliott in the first three seasons of their respective careers.

One of the things that people have used to knock Ezekiel Elliott has been the volume of carries that he's received, but there's a reason that the Dallas Cowboys lean on him so heavily. They've created a run-first identity and though at times it has made the offense somewhat inefficient, it's not because the player they're handing to is not a good player, but because every team in the NFL is expecting the Dallas Cowboys to run the football with Ezekiel Elliott.

In 2018 in particular, the Cowboys offensive coaching staff, namely the departed Scott Linehan, didn't do enough to create favorable matchups in the running game. Too often it was a first down run out of heavy personnel that the defense was expecting.

With two rushing titles already in the bag, there's no reason to expect anything different from Ezekiel Elliott in 2019. It's anticipated that the offensive gameplan and execution will be better in 2019 than it was in 2018. The offensive line will be better and with Kellen Moore as the offensive coordinator, there's a thought that the Dallas Cowboys are going to be less predictable moving forward.

The debate will continue to rage over the value of extending Ezekiel Elliott with a contract that will carry him to his age 28 or 29 season, but there is no debating that Ezekiel Elliott is the best and most dominant running back in the NFL.



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Is DeMarco Murray a Factor in Ezekiel Elliott’s Rumored Holdout?

Jess Haynie

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DeMarco Murray Expects Ezekiel Elliott to Rewrite Cowboys' Record Book

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.

Ezekiel Elliott Already Has Second Rushing Title Locked Down

Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott

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.

Cowboys Blog - Cowboys CTK: DeMarco Murray Dominates #29 2

Former Dallas Cowboys RB DeMarco Murray (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

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.



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History Suggests a Contract Extension for Ezekiel Elliott is a Crapshoot

Brian Martin

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Contract Extension With Ezekiel Elliott a Crapshoot at Best

If rumors are true, Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon could be following in the footsteps of Le'Veon Bell by threatening to hold out not only training camp, but the 2019 season if they're not rewarded with contract extensions from their respective teams. It's a bold strategy, especially considering the history of long-term extensions previously given to running backs.

Contract extensions for running backs is always a controversial topic. It's not only one of the easier positions to replace, but the shelf life for a NFL RB is a short one due to the physical nature of the position. Players bodies break down quicker, meaning their lifespan in the league on average is between just 3 to 5 years.

For the most part, the market value for running backs around the league would suggest the position isn't one teams like to invest a lot of resources in. Although, there was an uptick in the market last year when Todd Gurley signed a four-year deal worth $14.375 million a year and then David Johnson signed for three years worth $13 million a season. Those two contracts could be the starting point for Ezekiel Elliott.

Ezekiel Elliott's camp knows all of this and so do the Dallas Cowboys. But, handing out upwards of $14 million to a position that has such a short shelf life in the league is a crapshoot at best, even to a player as talented as Zeke. History hasn't been kind to running backs who receive a long-term extension. In fact, it's really hard to put a finger on one single RB who has lived up to their contract extension.

Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

RBs Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley

Take Todd Gurley and David Johnson for instance. Gurley already has long-term concerns about his health, and Johnson missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to an injury. Both players are currently the top paid at the position right now, but they're not the only examples of why the Cowboys should be cautious offering Zeke a contract extension.

The RB tier below Todd Gurley and David Johnson are making around $8 million a year after receiving a contract extension. Unfortunately, the results are about the same. Devonta Freeman ($8.25 M) and Jerick McKinnon ($7.5 M) missed nearly all of the 2018 season due to injuries after being rewarded with long-term deals. Only LeSean McCoy ($8.01 M) has come close to living up to his deal, but even he has struggled off-and-on with injuries.

Need more convincing?

Let's take this back a little bit further. Chris Johnson, Johnathan Stewart, DeMarco Murray, DeAngelo Williams, Ray Rice… I can go on and on. Even players such as Arian Foster who remained productive after receiving an extension struggled with injuries. If you haven't yet, you may start to see a trend here.

Now, I'm not saying the Dallas Cowboys shouldn't extend Ezekiel Elliott. Personally I'm on the fence about it and would be fine with them going either direction. But, they absolutely have to be cautious with the way they handled this. History is a good indicator they may not get the same kind of production from Zeke as they have previously.

Do you think the Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension?



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