The Dallas Cowboys face the herculean challenge this offseason of finally signing Dak Prescott to a long-term contract extension and plugging the numerous holes on their roster. They must to do all that while only having $33 million in cap space to play with.
Completing that task will take creativity, ingenuity, and some amazing scouting, but it would be made much easier if they traded Ezekiel Elliott. In fact, it's the Cowboys' best path toward becoming Super Bowl contenders again next year.
With Elliott out this week because of a calf contusion, Tony Pollard got the start and showed he's ready to replace Elliott as the Cowboys lead back moving forward. Against the 49ers, Pollard ran for 69 yards and two touchdowns and caught six passes for 63 yards.
Beyond the stats, Pollard looked more explosive than Elliott has at any point this year and, based on the fact that we haven't heard one negative thing about Pollard in his career, would likely be less of a headache off the field too. Pair Pollard with a talented rookie or savvy veteran and you have enough at running back to win.
That's the easy part -- replacing Elliott. The hard part is finding someone willing to absorb Elliott's contract. But don't worry, I've got a solution there too.
The Cowboys gave Elliott a six-year, $90 million extension ($50 million guaranteed) just before the 2019 season started. His 2021 salary of $9.6 million becomes fully guaranteed in March and he has the highest cap hit of any NFL RB in 2021 ($13.7 million) and 2022 ($16.5 million).
While that's bad news, the good news is he can be cut after the 2021 season with a $10.8 million cap hit and counts for only $6.7 million in dead cap if cut after 2022. So basically he has a one or two-year contract as the highest-paid back in the league.
Elliott hasn't played like an elite running back this season, but was a top three back in 2018 and 2019, accumulating more than 3,700 yards and 23 touchdowns combined rushing and receiving. He's still only 25 years old and this was the first game he's missed in his career due to injury. That versatility and durability should entice some offers on the trade market, especially if the Cowboys are willing to part with him for a mid-round pick.
Some might say that's too low of an asking price for Elliott, but if the Cowboys trade him after June 1, they'll save $9.6 million in cap space in 2021. They would get hit with $10.8 million in dead cap in 2022, but they need money in 2021 to sign Prescott and build a team around him. That should take precedence over all other considerations.
Because of injuries, the Cowboys offensive line needs to be rebuilt and they could use an upgrade on the interior of the defensive line. The secondary needs to be overhauled and their lack of depth across the roster has been obvious this year. Filling those holes takes smart draft picks and money. Beyond traditional contract restructuring, trading Elliott gives them what they need on both sides.
The Cowboys overpaid for Elliott in 2019. Like every team (other than the Titans) they learned paying big money for running backs hurts their chances to win the Super Bowl. Now they have a chance to rectify that mistake, lock up their franchise quarterback long-term and build a team that can actually compete for a championship. Who says no to that?