LaDainian Tomlinson didn’t hesitate when asked if the Dallas Cowboys should give Ezekiel Elliott a contract extension this offseason.
“Here’s the thing: Zeke has earned a new contract,” said Tomlinson, the Hall of Fame running back who is now an analyst on the NFL Network.
“People talk about projections and how many more years can he [be productive]. It’s not about that. It’s about what the guy has earned. Zeke has led that team to two division titles in the last three years. He’s led the National Football League in rushing two years already in his short career.
“To be quite honest with you, he’s done it the right way. He hasn’t been in trouble other than that one time. So I think he deserves a new contract and he deserves to be paid as one of the top players in the National Football League.”
Tomlinson has been impressed by watching Elliott’s growth from afar. It was Tomlinson who ranked among the most vocal critics of Elliott for “quitting” on the Cowboys during an early season 2017 game at Denver.
Elliott didn’t make much of an effort to tackle Broncos defenders after they intercepted passes by Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott.
But Elliott has grown from that incident, which happened in the middle of his legal fight with the NFL over a suspension for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy, and became more of a leader on the Cowboys last season.
Tomlinson has nothing but praise for Elliott these days.
“We all learn from situations,” Tomlinson said. “Knowing how it is in the locker room, the coaches with Jason [Garrett] and those guys, I guarantee you his running backs coach [Gary Brown], they had that conversation that you’ve got to continue to play even when things are not going right because those guys are looking at you.
“When you show a play like that on film where you just quit and don’t pursue the play, those young guys are looking at that and they start to think, ‘If Zeke can do it, one of the leaders of the team, if he can do it, then I can do it.’ Those are learning situations and he has learned from it. He was extraordinary this year. He was a leader in that locker room.”
Elliott has proven his worth since the Cowboys drafted him with the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft. He was the league’s rushing champion his rookie season with 1,631 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns.
Elliott served a six-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy in 2017, but still ranked as the league leader in rushing yards per game (98.3 yards) in the 10 games he played.
And last season Elliott reclaimed his rushing champ title with 1,434 yards rushing and six TDs. He topped the 2,000-yard mark in all-purpose yards with 2,001 (1,434 rushing and 567 receiving). His 381 touches (304 carries, 77 receptions) were a league-high too.
The Cowboys won the NFC East in the two seasons (2016 and 2018) he led the league in rushing, and Elliott has rushed for more than 100 yards in two of three career playoff games.
Tomlinson is a believer that teams need a ground game for postseason success. The two Super Bowl teams from last season -- New England and the Los Angeles Rams -- each had top-five rushing attacks.
That’s another reason why Tomlinson feels the Cowboys should pay Elliott.
“You have to be able to run the football late in the season,” Tomlinson said. “When November and ‘Old Man Winter’ come around, December, January, it starts to get cold, you better be able to run the football. All of these teams, even my Chargers with Melvin Gordon, we can run the football.
“You have to have that element in order to win late in the season.”
The question is the price tag for Elliott. The Cowboys still have him under contract for two more years, but Elliott could threaten to hold out if he doesn’t get a new deal.
The Rams set the stage last summer with a four-year, $60 million contract extension for running back Todd Gurley after his third season. The deal included a $20 million signing bonus and $45 million in guaranteed money.
Elliott is due $3.58 million in 2019, and the Cowboys will certainly exercise the fifth-year option in his contract, guaranteeing him more than $10 million in 2020.
But it’s a law of diminishing returns for Elliott after that because of his high usage in the Cowboys offense. He has 1,003 touches since 2016, including 304 rushes and a career-high 77 catches in 2018.
His importance to the Cowboys offense is not going to go down.
It’s important to him to maximize his earning potential now rather than two years from now when the carries could potentially start taking a toll and the Cowboys could also essentially lock him up with franchise tags for two seasons.