The two-time leading rusher in the NFL, Ezekiel Elliott has become a lightning rod this offseason. Not for anything he's done or said off the field, but because his name has been mentioned as a possible extension candidate this offseason. As the Dallas Cowboys prepare to hand out big money contracts to DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott, Amari Cooper, a free agent safety, and perhaps even Byron Jones, Elliott's big pay-day worthiness has been debated a lot. Maybe not to the extent that Dak Prescott and DeMarcus Lawrence have, but there are a lot of people on various sides of the argument of whether Elliott should get an extension.
There aren't many running backs that can stake their claim as the best running back in the league, but Ezekiel Elliott is one of them. Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Le'Veon Bell all could make the claim that they are the best running back in the NFL and each would have a bit of evidence to that point. Others like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Melvin Gordon are making noise of their own that could have them considered the best running back in the league. Whichever way you slice it, be it through the stat book, or on film, the two-time NFL rushing leader has made a tremendous impact on the Dallas Cowboys in his short tenure with America's Team.
The difficulty with any Elliott contract, however, is that the money for running backs has gotten out of control thanks to the Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams.
Prior to the Summer of 2018 when David Johnson and Todd Gurley signed their contracts for $13 and $14 million per year, the top running back contract was handed to Devonta Freeman of the Atlanta Falcons. In 2017, he signed a five-year $41.25 million contract extension with $22 million guaranteed with an average annual salary of $8.25 million per year. Before Freeman signed his deal, LeSean McCoy was the highest paid running back in the NFL at just over $8 million per season. If the trend continues with an Ezekiel Elliott contract extension, he could be looking at $15 million a season or more to carry the ball for the Dallas Cowboys.
Ezekiel Elliott showed this season that he's not just a runner for the Dallas Cowboys. He set career highs in targets, receptions, receiving yards, and total yards all while being the focal point for opposing defenses on a team that didn't have much of a passing game for half of the season. Consider that Ezekiel Elliott ran against eight or more men in the box on about 25% of his carries and you get the picture of a player that impacts the game as much as anyone on offense could for the Dallas Cowboys, even if his numbers weren't particularly efficient.
Sure, “running backs don't matter” is all the rage right now as the NFL becomes more of a passing league, but opposing defensive coordinators beg to differ. Every week when teams lined up to stop the Dallas Cowboys, the emphasis was on slowing down the Cowboys running game, not dropping extra people into coverage to stop the passing attack.
With a mandate for innovation and change on the offensive side of the ball, the hope is that Kellen Moore, Doug Nussmeier, and Jon Kitna can adapt the offense to put the Cowboys in better position to take advantage of their personnel and attack opposing defenses weaknesses. Watching the Dallas Cowboys run into nine-man fronts got really old in 2018, and with a change in the offensive hierarchy to Kellen Moore, who comes from more of a spread background, the Dallas Cowboys should look to spread their opponents out more, which should allow Elliott more space to run.
As great as he is at running the football, that isn't the only thing that Elliott brings to the table.
Ezekiel Elliott has become a leader in the Cowboys locker room. For a young team still growing an identity in the NFL, leadership is valuable and Elliott has not only been a vocal leader, but he's led by example as well. There are few players that personify the message that Jason Garrett delivers ad nauseam better than Ezekiel Elliott. He isn't a player that's concerned with trying to make the big play every time he touches the ball. Instead, he's looking to take what the defense gives him and often times taking yards from the defense after it looks like he's got nowhere to go. Elliott is the personification of dirty yards. His running style to sets the tone for the offense and the rest of the team. He does all the little things that you want every player on your team doing and he does them better than anyone else in the NFL.
That type of playing style gets noticed by teammates. When guys have elite skill, but also do the dirty work for your team, other players rally around them and look to them for leadership. Whether you realize it or not, Elliott is a leader for the Dallas Cowboys.
You don't usually hear of running backs being leaders on a team. Generally that's reserved for your quarterback, wide receiver, or like it was for many years with the Dallas Cowboys, the tight end, but that is what Elliott is to this Dallas Cowboys team. Sometimes, that has value.
Look at a guy like Tyrone Crawford. We've debated for years whether or not he's worth the contract he's receiving from the Cowboys. One could argue that based on his production, he doesn't. While Crawford is typically good for a handful of sacks and some big plays in big moments, it's not just the production on the field that makes him valuable to the Dallas Cowboys. It's his leadership. He's a player that the defense looks to and rallies around both on the field and in the locker room. He may not be the best player on the team, but he's an imporatant voice.
The same can be said for Ezekiel Elliott. Not only does he provide elite production, he's seen as a leader on the team. When factoring in Elliott's next big contract, that leadership can't be understated. Every team needs the guys that are the glue to keep a team moving forward. With Elliott, the Cowboys get the best of both worlds. Elite running ability and valuable leadership.
And that is hard to put a price on.