When Dak Prescott got paid, the biggest question hanging over the Cowboys was eliminated. But while Cowboys fans now know who their long-term quarterback is, things are anything but clear at the running back position moving forward.
Ezekiel Elliott will be around for the 2021 season, that much is certain. But there's a clear path for the Cowboys to cut him in 2022 and an end to the Prescott-Elliott backfield that has led the Cowboys to regular-season success, but not postseason glory.
Elliott is entering the third season of the six-year, $90 million extension he signed in 2019. He will cost $13.7 million against the cap in 2021 and would cost $24.5 million in dead cap space if the Cowboys released him now. Clearly, that's not something they'd be interested in this season.
Next year, however, Elliott's cap number increases to $16.5 million while his dead cap number drops to $10.8 million should the Cowboys cut him. That means the Cowboys would save $5.7 million in cap space in 2022 if they cut him outright. For a team projected to have the lowest amount of cap space in the league come 2022, that savings will be appealing, especially because the Cowboys have Tony Pollard under contract for only $1.1 million that season and the NFL is devaluing the running back position overall.
Only seven running backs in the NFL average over $10 million per year on their current deal and none of them have won a Super Bowl. Hell, you have to go 13 spots down the highest-paid running back list before finding a running back who's even played in a Super Bowl and that's Todd Gurley. The last running back to win a Super Bowl and be among the 10 highest paid was Marshawn Lynch in 2014. The point is NFL teams know they don't need a high-priced RB to win a Super Bowl and, in fact, it hurts their chances of reaching that goal.
Which brings us back to Zeke. Elliott is coming off the worst season of his career. He had the fewest touchdowns of his career in 2020, averaged the fewest yards per carry, had the most fumbles of his career, and had the fewest overall rushing yards per game of his career too...by almost 20 yards. Part of that has to do with Prescott being injured, but if Elliott needs Prescott to be successful, why would the Cowboys pay him the third-highest salary of any running back in the NFL in 2022?
When both players have started together over the last five years, the Cowboys have gone 38-23 in the regular season and won two division titles. But they've won only one playoff game and haven't made it past the divisional round of the postseason.
With big holes to fill along their defense, emerging needs on their once-vaunted offensive line and the statistical fact that overpaying at the running back position doesn't lead to Super Bowl success, the Cowboys will have a big question to answer about Elliott next offseason. A lot will depend on how Elliott performs in 2021 and how the team's season unfolds. But there's plenty of reasons to believe this will be Elliott's last year playing alongside Prescott unless he reworks his deal or proves worthy of his astronomical price tag.