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.
Cowboys Wishlist: 3 Things I Want to See in Kellen Moore’s Offense
The Dallas Cowboys offense will mostly remain the same in terms of players. However, a big change is coming with new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore taking over the talented unit. In a special edition of Cowboys Wishlist, I'll share the three big things I want to see in Moore's offense in 2019.
Let me know what you want to see in the comments section below or tweet me @MauNFL!
Wish #1: Frequent Read Option
Despite Dak Prescott's skills as a runner, rarely did we see the Cowboys run read option plays. For a team that seems to have the perfect duo for these plays, they certainly seemed to have wasted it over the last few years. This is an offense that has plenty of talent to be struggling as much as they did in the red zone last year.
Imagine being concerned about Ezekiel Elliott getting the ball and Dak Prescott keeping it at the same time? Not to mention the play action threat with a group of receivers led by Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup and Randall Cobb... oh, and a veteran tight end in Jason Witten who might be older but whose hands are very reliable.
The Athletic's Bob Sturm pointed out Prescott's average of 4.46 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns in the red zone between 2016 and 2018. The league average for all players is 2.64 and there's no one close to over four yards and over 10 touchdowns in the league. Dak has been dangerous when using his legs and yet, the Cowboys haven't used the read option as much. I hope that changes with Kellen Moore taking over.
Wish #2: Use Tight Ends More
I'm still impressed by how little the Cowboys utilized their tight ends in 2018. In fact, as Bobby Belt noted on Twitter a few months ago, this has happened consistently in Scott Linehan's career.
One thing you consistently see when Scott Linehan takes over an offense is a drop in the starting tight end's production. Randy McMichael, Byron Chamberlain, and Jason Witten all saw drops in yards per catch, receptions per game, and yards per game once Linehan took over.
Last year, Blake Jarwin had only three games with more than three targets. In those games, he racked up 56, 45 and 119 yards. This makes me wonder if the real problem at tight end last season was more about how they were utilized rather than the players at the position.
With Jason Witten back, Jarwin and the future Hall of Famer could split the snaps. Hopefully, Kellen Moore gives them a more active role on the offense. I really think we'll see way more from them.
Wish #3: Pre-Snap Motion
Pre-snap motion is truly a thing of beauty. The simple fact of getting a player in motion before the ball is snapped can go a long way to keep a defense in its toes and cause confusion to set up a successful play. In Boise State, Moore ran an offense that heavily relied on pre-snap motions.
The first year offensive coordinator won't turn the Cowboys into the new L.A. Rams but he can add this kind of trickery to help Dallas take the next step offensively. Dak Prescott will be playing his fourth year of professional football and adding this to the offense will only help the young QB by making his reads even easier.
How Will Coaching Changes Impact Cowboys’ Backup QB Battle?
There has been a big shakeup on the Dallas Cowboys' coaching staff in 2019. Scott Linehan is out, Kellen Moore was promoted to Offensive Coordinator, and Jon Kitna was hired as the new Quarterbacks Coach. What impact will the changes have on the QB position, and especially when it comes to the battle for the backup role?
The contenders remain Cooper Rush, a third-year player who joined Dallas as an undrafted free agent in 2017, and 2018 fifth-round pick Mike White. Rush was the backup QB last season, but had a major experience edge over his rookie competition. That playing field will be more level now in White's second season.
The changes in the coaching staff even things out all the more. There is a new OC with new ideas and things to learn, and new QB coach with his own style and preferences. Rush and White are starting over together, in a way, with this new personnel.
Jon Kitna is especially intriguing in this conversation. Moore was here last year but Kitna brings a fresh set of eyes to the QB position. He also brings the resume of being an exceptional backup quarterback during his playing career, understanding what it takes to be a success in the role.
Kitna may see and appreciate things that neither Kellen Moore or Scott Linehan could.
For example, what made Cooper Rush take a backward step in his play from the 2017 preseason to last year? He was the undrafted underdog that took the backup QB job away from Kellen Moore two years ago, but last year was the incumbent trying to hold on to his spot against a new prospect.
Did Mike White being a drafted player get in Rush's head?
Jon Kitna spent a long time fighting off younger options. He may be able to help Cooper deal with that pressure.
Or perhaps it will go the other way; Kitna's fresh perspective could help push White up the depth chart. From the new QB coach's own lips, he's approaching this situation without preconceived notions:
"For me, it’s more of a clean slate. I just want to come in and help those guys and help them progress in their careers. If you get the best out of them, that’s going to be good for us at an organization.”
A few months ago I was pushing for Dallas to sign a veteran backup. With the Super Bowl in reach, I don't want to see the season go down the drain if something happens to Dak Prescott. It'd be nice to have our own Nick Foles ready to go.
While it doesn't appear the Cowboys will go that route, I'm at least comforted by having Jon Kitna's voice in the room. He could have a tremendous influence on Cooper Rush and Mike White, and perhaps upgrade the QB2 position even without a roster move.
If nothing else, I'm going to be more confident in the backup quarterback decision knowing that Kitna was involved in making it.
Despite Changes, Cowboys Offense Still Runs Through Ezekiel Elliott
We've talked a lot this offseason about the changes at Offensive Coordinator and slot receiver, or how Jason Witten's return will impact the tight end position. But while all of these will impact the Dallas Cowboys' offense in 2019, the constant feature remains Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and the rushing attack.
From 2016 to 2018, since the Cowboys drafted Elliott, Dallas has ranked 1st, 3rd, and 10th among NFL teams in "run vs. pass" play calls. That's only logical; you don't spend a fourth-overall pick on a RB and then not make him the featured player in your offense.
Zeke has certainly rewarded Dallas' decision; Elliott has led the league in total rushing two out of three years, and he led in yards-per-game in 2017 while dealing with his suspension.
Leaning on Elliott has been smart business based on his effectiveness, plus the investment in the offensive line over the last several years.
Dallas has now sunk three first-round picks (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, Zack Martin), one second (Connor Williams), and now two thirds (Chaz Green and Connor McGovern) on building up their front wall. They've spent a lot of money to keep their All-Pro guys around, plus La'el Collins.
Some would try to paint the run-heavy approach as how the team is trying to hide the weaknesses of Dak Prescott at quarterback. But in 2014, with DeMarco Murray at RB and Tony Romo at QB, the Cowboys were still 3rd in the league in rush vs. pass attempts.
This isn't about Zeke or Dak, or any other specific player. This about a team philosophy that starts at the top with Jason Garrett, and that isn't going to change even with Kellen Moore taking over as the new Offensive Coordinator.
We're all excited to see what new wrinkles comes from getting rid of Scott Linehan. We highly anticipate the development of Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in the offense, coupled with the addition of Randall Cobb. We're salivating at what Blake Jarwin might become under the tutelage of the great Jason Witten.
Heck, maybe we'll see fullback Jamize Olawale's receiving skills put to more use. Perhaps gadget guys like Tavon Austin or rookie Tony Pollard will be deployed in more creative ways.
And yes, Dak Prescott's growth is another major factor in Dallas' 2019 success. It's especially interesting, and even concerning, as talks are ongoing about his long-term contract.
But make no mistake, this is still the Ezekiel Elliott show. Even if a few more of his carries become receptions in Moore's scheme, Zeke should still get the lion's share of the touches.
That's why this week's news about his incident in Las Vegas is so troubling. It probably won't lead to a suspension, but we saw what happened in 2017 when Elliott was missing for over a third of the season.
While Dallas should be better able to withstand losing Zeke now than it was two years ago, it may still be more than Prescott, Cooper, and the rest could handle. It definitely wouldn't put the Cowboys in good position to compete for a Super Bowl.
In the end, the 2019 will still come down to how well Dallas runs the ball. It's the engine; nothing else matters if the rushing game doesn't set everyone else up for success.
Don't ever take it for granted. This is still Ezekiel Elliott's offense.
Player News2 weeks ago
Leighton Vander Esch Graded Best Rookie Linebacker Since 2014
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
Kicker Matt Bryant Should Be the Final Piece of Cowboys 2019 Offseason
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Way-too-early 2019 Dallas Cowboys 53-man Roster Projection
Star Blog2 weeks ago
QB Dak Prescott Already Impressing New Offensive Coaches
Dallas Cowboys1 week ago
What Could June 1st Mean for 2019 Dallas Cowboys?
Dallas Cowboys2 weeks ago
Despite Perception, Dallas Cowboys had an Excellent Offseason
Dallas Cowboys5 days ago
Why Cowboys Should Make Signing RB Jay Ajayi a Top Priority
Player News6 days ago
DT Leonard Williams May be Available, Should the Cowboys Explore a Trade?