Will Ezekiel Elliott’s contract dilemma end on a positive note?

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Updated: August 10, 2019
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As the Dallas Cowboys prepare for their preseason opener in San Francisco, running back Ezekiel Elliott continues his holdout in another country, seeking a contract extension that will make him the highest-paid running back in the league.

Last year, Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension, with $30 million guaranteed. Months later, Los Angeles Rams running back Todd Gurley landed a four-year, $57 million deal, with $45 million guaranteed. This past offseason, New York Jets running back Le’Veon Bell received a four year, $52.5 million contract, which has a max value of $61 million and is $35 million guaranteed. In terms of base salary, Gurley is making $14.4 million annually, followed by Bell at $13.12 million and Johnson getting $13 million.

According to Clarence E. Hill Jr. of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Cowboys’ opening offer falls below Gurley’s contract and more towards Bell’s. Elliott is reportedly commanding more than $15 million annually, despite Dallas Executive Vice President Stephen Jones’ declaration that the team will continue to push for team-friendly contracts, rather than set the market with record-breaking deals.

Elliott is expected to pocket a base salary of $3.8 million this season and $9.1 million next season—the 2020 fifth-year option on his rookie deal exercised by Dallas in April—which still does not compensate for his worth. And given his production since being selected fourth in the 2016 NFL Draft, nobody has room to criticize the call of staying away from the organization until his representatives receive what they believe is the proper deal.

The former Ohio State Buckeye is coming off another strong campaign in 2018: 1,434 rushing yards on 304 attempts with six touchdowns, while adding 77 receptions for 567 yards and three touchdowns. In his first three seasons, Elliott has attained two rushing awards, which likely would have been three had he not got suspended in 2017. He’s one of only 13 players in NFL history to rush for at least 4,000 yards, coupled with over 5,000 yards in all-purpose yards, which only 11 players in the league have accomplished.

However, Elliott is dealing with an owner in Jerry Jones whose awfully aware that his position is one of the most replaceable in football, and teams are paying less for the position’s production. Jones dealt with a similar situation in 1993 when star running Emmitt Smith held out of camp and two regular-season games in hopes of landing a new contract.

“One of the dilemmas at running back is that the league knows that you can win Super Bowls and not have the Emmitt Smith back there or not have Zeke back there,” Jones told reporters. “Consequently, when we are looking at putting Zeke’s contract in place, we’ve got to realize that the ultimate goal is to win the Super Bowl.

“And so you’ve got to do all of the things along with having Zeke that allows you to have other players so that you can win the Super Bowl. And that’s what we’re going through.”

It seems other owners and general managers know this, too. As disgruntled Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon maintains his holdout, Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt expressed their attentiveness in running backs Justin Jackson and Austin Ekeler splitting reps in one of the league’s best offenses. An attempt to replace Elliott’s production (at least for now), Dallas signed running back Alfred Morris, a veteran who Jones is already gushing about, followed by rookies Tony Pollard and Mike Weber, whom each have impressed during training camp.

There is some logic behind this type of thinking, given how C.J. Anderson, a journeyman at the time looking for a home, stepped right in for Gurley as he was bothered by a knee injury in the playoffs and kept the Rams’ running game afloat. With the Cowboys’ offensive line expected to return to prominence, one could argue any running back would do them justice. Still, even Jones understands Elliott’s determination of cashing in during this stage of his career.

“One of our analytics guys said most backs, they deserve to get their money their first four years in the league, and then they trickle off,” Jones Jones told reporters back in 2016. “It certainly doesn’t hurt to be paying him on his rookie contract.” Another problem hindering Elliott’s new deal aspirations is the expiring contracts of quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, who sport two of the most prominent positions in football—in markets that continue to skyrocket.

Last month, Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz signed a four-year, $128 million extension, in a deal that could be worth up to $144 million, and the record-setting $107 million-plus in guaranteed money. Shortly after the Seattle Seahawks made Russell Wilson the highest-paid player in March. The New Orleans Saints gifted wideout Michael Thomas a five-year deal worth $100 million with $61 million guaranteed. Then the following day, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff announced his plans of making wide receiver Julio Jones the highest-paid player at the position.

Obviously, this leaves Elliott with the least leverage of the trio. But being arguably the most dominant running back in football, in an offensive scheme that can severely struggle without his services, gives Elliott some leverage to sustain his holdout into the season—forcing Jerry Jones to bend to his contract demands, should Dallas start out slow. 

According to ESPN Stats and Information, that’s quite possible. With Elliott, the Cowboys are 28-12, have averaged 361.5 yards per game and 4.7 yards per rush, and have outscored opponents by 188 points. In the eight games they have played without Elliott, the Cowboys are 4-4, have averaged 297.3 yards per game, and have been outscored by opponents by 36 points. 

However, because he plays a position that isn’t as valuable this day and age, coupled with the fact that sitting out this season wouldn’t do him any good because of his contract situation, that’s the only leverage he has heading into the 2019 season.  http://gty.im/1086064076

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