This may be Ezekiel Elliott’s last fight with the Cowboys because of his inflated contract

OXNARD, Calif. — Ever since the Dallas Cowboys signed Ezekiel Elliott to one of the worst running back deals in recent history, it’s been like a clock ticking when he leaves.

It also set a bit of an echo in training camp on Wednesday, showcasing a familiar storyline from a year ago. Something like: what can this team expect to get out of Ezekiel Elliott this season, and how much longer can they expect him to live up to his elite salary?

The response last season was promising at first, until Elliott suffered a partially torn PCL in Week 4, triggering what eventually became a frustrating drop in the remaining three months of the schedule. Elliott stayed on the pitch despite his injury, but he looked nothing like his best level of play.

The result was an off-season amplification of two questions that were meant to weigh on Elliott by the time he signed his six-year, $90 million extension in 2019: How much longer can Elliott be a running back? elite, and when does that answer come at a crossroads with his salary?

For some, this intersection is already there. And the result has been a training camp where it’s fair to wonder if 2022 is the beginning of the end of his time in Dallas, a point he doesn’t seem to ponder despite the questions swirling around him.

“I think it’s a great season, but you can’t look too far down the road,” Elliott said of his future. “I think if I focus on every day, if I focus on having a good day of camp, if I focus on taking it week in and week out, I think everything will sort itself out. And I don’t think there’s really a reason to look that far down the road. I think if I manage my business every day, I will be in a pretty good situation at the end of the season.

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has struggled to meet his hefty contract extension since signing in 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott has struggled to meet his hefty contract extension since signing in 2019. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Will Zeke suffer the same fate as other big money RBs?

Whether he thinks about it or not, the reason to question Elliott’s deal isn’t going away anytime soon. Partly because the Cowboys have another running back in Tony Pollard who has shown greater playing ability at times in more limited use. Also because Elliott’s contract was apparently set up for scrutiny from the start, thanks to a litany of elite running back deals turning into franchise warts. It all started with the constant backdrop of Todd Gurley’s debacle with the Los Angeles Rams – which saw a four-year, $60 million extension turn into an unforgettable disaster for the franchise.

It didn’t stop there, with essentially all of Elliott’s other highly paid RB contemporaries struggling to keep their deals. To date, the Carolina Panthers have failed to secure a return on Christian McCaffrey’s $64 million four-year extension. Behind, the Arizona Cardinals began trying to get rid of David Johnson’s $39 million, three-year extension a season after he was signed. Even Alvin Kamara’s five-year, $75 million extension from the 2020 season is already on the brink of some criticism, given his health issues in 2021 and an off-field incident that could cost him a fortune. suspended this season.

All have been storylines supporting an ideology that has taken deep root throughout the league. Whoever suggests return windows should either be limited to their rookie offers, after which extensions should be addressed by conducting a hard bargain and structuring a contract with an easy exit.

Dallas didn’t do that with Elliott, much to the chagrin of a fan base that appears to be frustrated with a player whose best production came in his first four seasons and then faded after 2019. Now, it enters 2022 with back to back. seasons of injured or ineffective play and with Pollard pushing for more touches in the backfield.

Some of the circumstances surrounding Elliott didn’t help at times, such as Dak Prescott’s 2020 season-ending injury and subsequent offensive line implosion. Elliott also played last season due to a PCL injury, during which he could have stopped for a while rather than grind everything he could while playing a thankless role as a first stopper. shot in the backfield.

The contract will complicate the decision of Dallas

Just being available isn’t going to change the reality of expectations this season, as Elliott seemingly enters on a ‘bounce or whatever’ measuring stick. At least, that’s how it appears. It’s worth noting that his economy isn’t as straightforward this offseason as it will be a year from now.

While the topic of Elliott’s potential exit next offseason has already gained traction in this camp, the numbers aren’t as precise as they appear. Yes, he carries an unsecured base salary of $10.9 million in 2023. But he also has $11.86 million in various bonuses that would accelerate the salary cap as dead money if traded or released next season.

Basically, the question of money versus talent is simple. The Cowboys can get rid of Elliott and incur a cap charge of $11.86 million, or they can keep him and incur a cap charge of $16.72 million. Pressing those two numbers against each other, it comes down to whether Elliott is worth carrying another $4.86 million in 2023. And if not, what kind player replaces Elliott on the roster in 2023 for just $4.86 million.

“The question is whether he’s still down this year,” a league source said of Elliott. “He looks like a declining player. If that’s what he is, then he might not be much more than a mediocre running back by the time you make that decision. If he kills him this year, then obviously you know the answer, because you’re not going to get a better player for [$4.86 million] to replace him. But if it declines again this year, it doesn’t matter how much money you save or not. At this point, it’s best to just take the savings and transfer the opportunity to a player who can do more.

That summary right there – this is the question the Cowboys have to face.

How good can Elliott be in 2022 and what is the replacement cost in 2023? These questions are about the next two seasons rather than this one. Dallas knows it. And that’s why the coaching staff and the front office continue to use any language to explain why he’s still important to the team.

That’s why head of player personnel Stephen Jones says “no one competes like Zeke”, as if that’s a data point that makes up for the gap between performance and pay.

That’s why head coach Mike McCarthy calls him a ‘key player’ who does ‘all the little extra things’, largely because he knows Elliott doesn’t have the big stat ‘stuff’ that make his salary easy to justify.

The Cowboys are looking for reasons to keep Elliott in the fold until he returns to a style of play that finally demands his place in 2023. If he can do it, there’s some financial sense to justify it. If he can’t, then he will have made the Cowboys decision for them, no matter who is to blame this time around.

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy (right) continues to voice his support for Ezekiel Elliott, even as questions loom over Elliott's future with the team.  (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Dallas Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy (right) continues to voice his support for Ezekiel Elliott, even as questions loom over Elliott’s future with the team. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

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