With great power comes great responsibility, and with great cap management comes a bunch of silly February takes that tilt your head to the side before you even realize you’re making that face.
The Cowboys have a lot of money to spend this offseason and with that, there’s an abundance of people trying to figure out the best way to spend said dollars. Let’s get this out of the way first. No, Ezekiel Elliott is not holding the Dallas Cowboys back.
Is handing the ball off to a running back the most efficient way to move the ball statistically? No, of course it isn’t.
Is statistical efficiency the best way to measure the worth of a player? No, of course it isn’t.
Elliott is well worthy of being the centerpiece for the Cowboys’ offense, but would also more than likely benefit from more play-calling diversity as improving, surround pieces warrant. In the mean time, the Cowboys should sign him to a long-term deal to protect their interests and pacify the team’s leader.
Elliott emerged as the offense’s leader after the departure of Dez Bryant and Jason Witten. It would be foolish to offend him and still keep him around his troops.
The supporting evidence
Elliott has led the NFL in yards-per-game in each of his three NFL seasons, leading the league in total rushing both years he was allowed to play in 15 games as opposed to 10. He’s led the league in carries both of those two seasons, and led the NFL in total touches (381) this past season after his 2018 receptions total (77) dwarfed that of his first two seasons combined (58).
He is the prototypical work-horse who some feel still hasn’t been fully utilized by his team.
The Cowboys are 28-12 when Ezekiel Elliott plays.
If that’s holding a team back, please sell more of that misguided, .700 winning percentage in the DFW. What Elliott brings to the table in his vision and gap selection, along with his durability, is not something easily quantifiable.
One of the arguments recently posed by Pro Football Focus, and one often made by those who agree the running game is outdated, is that Elliott is made by his offensive line and any runner could do what he does in Dallas.
Here’s what they said as part of their explanation for why Elliott isn’t worth the hype.
"This was never more apparent than when Zeke was out in 2017, when both Rod Smith and Alfred Morris filled in admirably. Dallas was actually twice as efficient running the ball in the six games that Elliott missed via suspension, averaging +0.04 expected points added (EPA) per run play during that stretch."
What a crock of bull.
A runner on another team, or even Elliott’s Cowboys (see 2017 Alfred Morris and 2017 Rod Smith) can have the same or better efficiency numbers because they are not regarded as the main thing a defense needs to stop.
Here’s the actual, tangible impact on winning and losing games that Elliott had over his counterparts in 2017, when they were fed the ball just as much as he was, and ran at the exact same clip. There really cannot be any better evidence for how Elliott impacts how defenses play Dallas.
Elliott vs Replacements in 2017
RB available RBs YPC Att / Gm Total Offense / Gm Pts / Gm
6 games w/o EE 4.06 23.8 294 18.3
10 w/ Ezekiel Elliott 4.06 24.2 354.7 24.4
Imagine having tangible data for a comparison but choosing expected points as the litmus test. Advanced statistics are a godsend when it comes to an overarching narrative. There is much to be said about the need to pass the ball more. However in comparing whether or not a player or his backups makes a difference and ignore the actual evidence of what happened when the replacement was made seems short-sighted.
There’s no amount of descriptive stats that can rightfully say what Dallas would be if they didn’t have Elliott that stands stronger than the actual stats without him.
With the obvious caveat for opponent strength (which EPA doesn’t account for either), Elliott was literally worth 60 yards and a touchdown to his team in 2017.
This isn’t to say Dallas couldn’t thrive with a top back on a rookie deal, but only to emphatically say no, all running backs aren’t created equal.
It goes beyond just how many defenders are in the box. It’s about the mentality of those 11 players on the defense and what they are predisposed to stopping. Again, not something that can be quantified and the reason things like PFF’s grade of Elliott’s performance are rubbish.
For exactly one season, 2018, Dallas has had a top 10 defense in DVOA (a metric that measures teams based on opponent and game situation). They were 18th and 25th respectively the previous two years. Rush the ball and play defense normally only works when it’s good defense or an elite runner.
With Elliott as the focus on the Cowboys offense, it’s allowed QB Dak Prescott to mature from what he was at the outset of his career with less traffic in his passing lanes. Elliott assuredly changes the way defenses play the Cowboys offense and once again, that cannot be measured statistically.
The Cowboys run a zone scheme primarily, meaning what Elliott does in his timing and effort cannot be separated from what the offensive line does in creating the holes he runs through. When they run with power-gap principles, his elite hole selection again cannot be separated from what the OL does.
Crediting them, or more precisely downgrading his yardage because so much is done at the line of scrimmage, goes against basic football intelligence. Only crediting the OL for yards gained before the second level pretends that a RB doesn’t contribute in the ways mentioned above.
As such, the Cowboys are well reasoned to want to extend Elliott beyond the 2020 season. As a 2016 first-round pick, Dallas has the fifth-year option, allowing him to remain in Dallas for two more seasons.
An extension this off-season really just locks Dallas in for a third year, and gives them options beyond that.
A long-term deal commits for just one additional season
If there’s one thing I’d like everyone to take away from this offseason is how little attention should be paid to contract length and total contract value when it comes to extensions in the NFL. They matter, but they are hardly the most important factors of a deal. In fact, they obscure a deal’s true value.
What really makes a difference is how much a player is guaranteed to receive, and how soon a team can escape a contract and move on from a player who is no longer performing at the level he’s being compensated for.
In general, this is almost always a three-year window. Star players normally get new deals that have guaranteed money that covers the first two seasons, and for the best players that guarantee usually creeps into Year 3. Even when the guaranteed money only leaks into that third season, it’s virtually a full guarantee as it’s at a level where unless the player absolutely craters, it’s enough to force the team to keep them, or at the worst look for a trade partner who will take on the deal. The player will still get that year’s salary from a new team.
What’s the baseline guarantee for Elliott?
Elliott is signed for 2019 at $3.85 million in base salary. His fifth-year option has to be invoked by May 2 and will likely come in around $10.4 million. As a top 10 player, he is entitled to the average of the 10 highest salaries at the running back position.
It is guaranteed for injury, meaning if Elliott is healthy it can be revoked (it won’t be) all the up until the start of the 2020 season, at which point he’d become an unrestricted free agent.
The third component would be if Dallas had to franchise Elliott in 2021. While that season is a huge unknown, as it will be the first year of a new CBA (provided there’s no lockout or strike that wipes out the season), we proceed with these projections as if the system will not drastically change, even though it might.
The tag for RBs in 2018 was $11.86 million. Over the Cap projects 2019’s tag to be worth $11.98 million, a one percent increase. We’ll conservatively etch in the 2021 numbers at $12.25 million.
Elliott’s full guarantees should be around $26.5 million. That will be a sizeable increase from what the only other current RB comparable got, the Rams’ Todd Gurley. Gurley received just under $22 million guaranteed in an extension right before the 2018 season.
How else could Gurley’s deal be used as benchmarks?
Gurley signed his extension after being a top pick and playing three years in the league. His fifth-year option for 2019 would’ve been $9.6 million as the No. 10 pick from the 2015 draft. With an original base salary for 2018 of $2.3 million and a 2020 franchise tag projection of $12.1 million, his guarantee should’ve been around $24 million.
Los Angeles deals in yearly roster bonuses where Dallas doesn’t. It allows a player to avoid what the Cowboys did with Bryant last year, waiting until the draft to release a guy. That could be one reason why Gurley’s guaranteed money fell short of projection, because he has assurances he’ll hit the market before it opens if L.A. ever wants to walk away.
Gurley though has several assurances the Rams won’t screw him over. His non-injury guarantees total just over $45 million through his first three and a half seasons. It’s hard to justify Elliott not getting that. While Gurley beats Elliott in scoring through three years, 42 to 34, Elliott has over 600 more yards through their first three seasons, 5,250 to 4,600.
Gurley’s extension was for four years, $57.5 million, averaging $14.375 million a year. His actual AAV for the duration of the now six-year deal is $11.7 million a season.
Breaking down Gurley’s extension annually it was 8.11 percent of 2018’s $177.7 million salary cap. His total deal was annually 6.8 percent.
What would the Elliott deal look like?
Applied to Elliott in 2019, with a projection of a $190 million cap, those figures come to $15.4 million for the last four years and $12.9 million over the six years.
Elliott will be just 24 years old for the entirety of the 2019 season. This means an early extension that runs through the 2024 season allows Dallas to keep him in the fold through age 29. The club has made their concerns well known about running backs over the age of 30. That is why they were hesitant to ink DeMarco Murray to a deal as a free agent in 2015, and the fact he’s now retired from the league is proof they were correct.
As for the signing bonuses given to running backs, Gurley’s $21 million is above and beyond what other backs have been getting recently, but so is his overall deal. David Johnson got just $13 million as a bonus while Atlanta’s Devonte Freeman received $15 million.
We’ll cut the difference and give Elliott $18 million in signing bonus.
That gives the following benchmarks in creating a new deal for Elliott.
Fully Guaranteed Money: $26.5 million
Virtually Guaranteed Money: $40.225 million
Signing Bonus: $18 million
Average Annual Value: $12.9 million
Total Contract Value: $77.4 million
New Money Yearly Average: $15.4 million
New Money Total: $61.6 million
Initial Elliott Contract Look:
6-Yr, $77.4M total value; $26.5M fully g’teed
$18M signing bonus
Year Base Salary Total Bonus Cap Hit
2019 $1,000,000 $3,600,000 $8.69 million ($4.09M from rookie deal)
2020 $7,500,000 $3,600,000 $11.1 million
2021 $13,725,000* $3,600,000 $17.325 million
2022 $9,725,000 $3,600,000 $13.325 million
2023 $11,725,000 $3,600,000 $15.325 million
2024 $15,725,000 $15.725 million
TOTAL $18,000,000 * = functional guarantee
Elliott’s 2021 salary would become guaranteed on the 3rd day of the league year under this deal.
Dallas will likely structure the guarantees in signing bonus ($18 million) and first two years base salary ($8.5 million total).
Under this proposal, Elliott is making $40.225 million in his first three years, slightly more than what Gurley took home in his first three years, but less than what Gurley is guaranteed, as the latter’s fourth-year roster bonus is locked in.
These make the cap hits for these two seasons almost exactly where they would be under the five-year option plan; just a $1.4 million increase total over 2019 and 2020.
From 2022 on, Dallas has the year-by-year option.
To recap, Elliott’s projected deal is:
1) More up front than Gurley
2) More in first three years than Gurley
3) More over the course of contract than Gurley
4) More fully guaranteed than Gurley
5) Smaller signing bonus than Gurley
6) Less functionally guaranteed than Gurley
Dallas can get around the last part publicly by announcing injury guarantees for Year 4.
What this deal would mean
Dallas can release Elliott prior to 2022 for a $7.2 million, dead-money cap hit that season. Of course as we explain several times before, dead money isn’t as negative as it’s billed to be. The Cowboys paid that money already, but just didn’t account for it on their books. $10.8 million in 2021, with an expected higher salary cap, takes up a smaller percentage of cap space than it would have if on the 2019 and 2020 books.
Depending on how Elliott performs through 2020, he’ll be 25 through that entire season, Dallas could look to restructure part of his 2021 salary to create more room at that time, spreading the amount restructured over four seasons.
Alternate view: A 3-year deal with 4 years of cap hits
Let’s circle back around to an idea we’ve brought up in prior projections (Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence, Amari Cooper) that Dallas is really looking at a three-year competitive window, looking to build in outs that will allow them to his the reset button if the team isn’t competing for championships annually.
Using the figures from above, what would it look like if Dallas 100 percent intends to make Elliott happy right now, while also planning to walk away following the 2022 season, his fourth year of this proposal, and not deal with the final two seasons.
So, same signing bonus, same guaranteed money, same per-year breakdown, but the intention of the team to restructure him prior to 2021 and release him after 2022 (his Age 27 season).
Early Release Elliott Contract
Year Base Salary Prorated SB Restructure Bonus Cap Number Dead Money
2019 $1,000,000 $7,690,000 $8.69M
($4.09M from rookie deal)
2020 $7,500,000 $3,600,000 $11.1 million
2021 $1,725,000 $3,600,000 $3,000,000 $8.325 million $10,800,000
2022 $9,725,000 $3,600,000 $3,000,000 $16.325 million $16,200,000
2023 $3,600,000 $6,000,000 $ $9,600,000
The look above turns $12 million of Elliott’s 2021 base salary and turns it into a restructure bonus, allocated across the final (including current) four years of the deal evenly at $3 million per season.
Escape Hatch No. 1
If Elliott were released following 2022, the remaining allocation from the original signing bonus ($3.6 million) and the two remaining years from the 2019 restructure bonus ($6 million total) would all fall on the 2023 cap. Dallas could even spread this out over two seasons by calling it a June 1 release (if that still exists or is grandfathered in to the next CBA) and eat $6.6 million of dead money in 2023, and the final $3 million in 2024.
Escape Hatch No. 2
Dallas could also look at this as a three-year deal, $40.225 million, and walk away after 2021 (which would’ve been a franchise tag) for $7.6 million in dead cap in 2022.
Escape Hatch No. 3
This one isn’t very likely, because Dallas would be much better served just riding out the next two seasons and letting Elliott walk prior to 2021, but they could also release him at that point and have $10.8 million of dead money if they gave him a new deal now to keep him happy and fully engaged.
Again, while it eats up cap space for a player no longer on the team, dead money takes up a smaller percentage of the cap in the year it hits than it would have if allocated during the year the money was actually given to the player.
Elliott’s side would of course be prepared for this and will look at this as a two-year extension that pays him proper value for the next four seasons.
Elliott may want to negotiate roster bonuses as part of his take-home pay from 2021 through 2024. That will give him assurances like what Gurley got that if the team chooses to move on, they will give him opportunity to hit the market at it’s peak and maximize their value.
Honestly, after what the team did with Bryant in 2018, this should be a major sticking point for all of Dallas’ stars in negotiations.