The sun could be setting on the Cowboys’ big three much sooner than many would’ve thought. And their star running back Ezekiel Elliottcould be the first to go. Remember, as important as he is to the Cowboys recent success, he’s still one of 53 players on a roster.
With two years left on his rookie deal, trading Elliott could be one of the best things the Cowboys did since they traded another star running back – Hershel Walker in 1989.
Back then, Dallas traded Walker at the peak of his career to the Minnesota Vikings and got a return package like none few others in NFL history, landing five players and six draft picks. The players were decent, but the draft picks turned out to be some names you might’ve heard of – Emmitt Smith, Russell Maryland, Kevin Smith and Darren Woodson.
While it would be tough to replicate that unholy haul, some draft picks and a few players wouldn’t be a bad return, and may be the best decision for the Cowboys in the long run. The combination of Dak Prescott and Elliott has only gotten the Cowboys to the divisional round of the playoffs in two of the last three years, and a 9-7 record in 2017 with no playoff appearance.
Believe it or not, Elliott is replaceable. Remember DeMarco Murray? Elliott is surely more talented, but running backs have never been more interchangeable in the league. Elliott is admittedly their most dangerous player on the offensive side of the ball, but even owner Jerry Jones admitted that “you don’t have to have a rushing champion to win a Super Bowl.”
Elliott is currently holding out of Cowboys training camp in hopes of a new deal, presumably one that tops the $57 million deal the Rams’ Todd Gurley got last year. But his holdout doesn’t seem to be affecting the Cowboys preparations for the upcoming season quite yet. They brought back Alfred Morris on Monday to reinforce the position and seem to be ready to move on without Elliott in the short term.
Elliott’s demands for a bigger contract make sense for a running back that’s led the league in rushing in the two of the last three years, along with leading the league in yard per game average in every season he’s been in the league. He’s been nothing but productive for Dallas, and wanting to get paid while he’s still elite is simply business.
In the two years he led the league in rushing, he also led the league in carries, and carried the ball more than 300 times in both 2016 and 2018. He totaled 242 carries in his shortened 2017 campaign. If and when he does return to the Cowboys, his current work-rate has him going over the 1,000-carry mark at age 24. It’s likely he will start to decline by his age-25 season in 2020, the final year of his current deal and the average age that NFL running backs start to slide. He knows that Dallas plans to use him heavily once again in 2019 and wants to be compensated properly– simply business.
However, Elliott doesn’t hold all the cards here, and Dallas could decide they don’t want the headache of negotiating with their star back. NFL teams are trying to avoid the near $15 million per year deal Gurley signed for last season that starts in 2020. So far, in two of his first three seasons, Elliott has been worth every penny of his rookie contract. He’s due to make $3.1 million this year and $9.1 million in 2020.
The NFL is devaluing running backs, whether they like it or not. In today’s era where the passing game reigns beyond supreme, pure traditional running backs don’t statistically contribute as much to a team’s overall success as they once used to. According to a study by FiveThirtyEight on the declining value of running backs, teams are spending less and less on running backs like they used to, and spending it more, offensively, on wideouts, offensive lineman and even tight ends. Almost every defensive position is getting paid more than NFL running backs as well.
All of this isn’t to mention off-field behavior, which is where things start to really go south with Elliott and make a trade that much more tempting. His 2017 campaign numbers were kept to just under 1,000 yards rushing due to his six-game suspension after allegations of domestic violence. He was also involved in an altercation in Las Vegas with a security guard at a concert in the spring. The league didn’t punish him despite charges being pressed.
There will be a team that could give Elliott the contract he wants, and trading him away from Dallas to another organization with more structure and a firmer hand at the top could be good for him off-the-field. The Cowboys could benefit with a bevy of draft picks and try to repeat what they did with the Walker trade in ’89.
He’s one of the top running backs in the game right now, but with a declining market for running backs and players with issues, along with the fact they haven’t gone so far in the playoffs with him, Dallas should sell while his value is still high.
Dallas has a lot of priorities and questions coming up after the 2019 season. Zeke is an important one, but he’s still just one of 53.