Ezekiel Elliott among Cowboys in line to be paid

On the first day of the 2019 league year, six core members of the Dallas Cowboys were set to become eligible for some sort of free agency after the 2019 season: quarterback Dak Prescott, running back Ezekiel Elliott, receiver Amari Cooper, pass rusher DeMarcus Lawrence (who had been franchise-tagged), linebacker Jaylon Smith (who will be a restricted free agent) and cornerback Byron Jones.

Then, earlier this month, the Cowboys agreed to a five-year, $105 million deal with Lawrence, making him the second-highest paid edge rusher in the NFL, in terms of average annual value, behind only Khalil Mack. The team avoided carrying a $20.6 million cap hit this season, and Lawrence will receive $31 million in 2019.

The first box was checked. But there are so many questions still in Dallas about the rest of the core, and the answers are all dollars and cents. Before we dig into each player's situation, let's consider the team's salary-cap situation.

According to Over The Cap, the Cowboys have $19.7 million in salary cap space and will have $94.0 million in space in 2020 (assuming a $200 million cap in 2020). If the team needs to create space to get deals done with any of the players listed in this piece, Dallas could easily restructure the contracts of either left tackle Tyron Smith and/or right guard Zack Martin.

Over the past five seasons, Dallas regularly restructured the contracts of veterans like Tony Romo, Jason Witten, Travis Frederick, Tyrone Crawford and Sean Lee. Lately, the team has attempted to be more prudent in terms of pushing dead money into the future. However, Smith's contract was restructured in each season from 2015 to '17. Smith and Martin are each due a base salary of $10 million in 2019. The Cowboys could drop each of those base salaries to $1 million and convert the other $9 million into a signing bonus, which can be prorated over the next five seasons (Smith has five years remaining on his current contract and Martin has six), freeing $14.4 million and giving the team approximately $34 million in cap space this offseason (not including the rookie-compensation pool number, which is the amount set aside for signing 2019 draftees).

To put that number into perspective, consider that it would take $38.4 million to roster the following players according to the cap number in the first years of their current contracts:

QB Matt Ryan, Falcons: $17.7 million cap figure in 2018 ($30 million AAV, third-highest at his position) RB Todd Gurley, Rams: $7.2 million cap figure in 2018 ($14.4 million AAV, highest for a running back) WR Odell Beckham, Browns: $5.459 million cap figure in 2018 ($18 million AAV, highest for a receiver) CB Josh Norman, Redskins: $8 million cap figure in 2016 ($15 million AAV)

Except for Ryan, who ranks third, each player listed above is the highest paid at his position in terms of AAV. The contracts of the above-named four players are also similar in structure to the signing-bonus-heavy deals the Cowboys have typically struck when working out long-term extensions (outside of the one for Frederick), with the first year of the contract including a relatively smaller cap charge. Another advantage for the team comes in the form of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA); because it expires after the 2020 season, teams will have use of both the franchise tag and the transition tag next offseason.

The bottom line is, with a little creative accounting, the Cowboys have all the resources necessary to retain their core long-term beyond 2019 if they truly want to. They will just have to be frugal in free agency in the years to come and focus on building through the draft, because of the number of veteran contracts that will be on the books.

Let's take a closer look at each player's situation:

Ezekiel Elliott, running back

Career stats to date: 1,003 touches, 5,247 scrimmage yards, 34 scrimmage TDs in three seasons

2018 season stats: 381 touches, 2,001 scrimmage yards, 9 scrimmage TDs

High volume: Despite serving a six-game suspension in 2017 and resting two Week 17 games (in '16 and '18), Elliott is the only player in the NFL with over 1,000 touches since 2016. And he capitalized on his opportunities, accumulating more scrimmage yards than any player over that span. However, continuing to accrue the kind of workload he did in 2018 -- logging a career-high 381 touches -- seems far from sustainable. The volume of usage and production, even with his youth (he'll turn 24 in July), is a double-edged sword; it both establishes and diminishes his value in the same stroke. The Cowboys will want to find the perfect balance between fairly compensating him and anticipating future waning returns as he ages. As for Elliott, might he want to hold out for a new deal at some point this offseason, so he can get his money before the team runs him into the ground and then lets him walk?

Pulse of the offense: The question of who is the best running back in the NFL is a longer conversation; the truth is, Elliott may be more important to his offense than any other non-quarterback in the league. Yes, he runs behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines, but Elliott's never-say-die style saw him lead the league in yards after contact (949) in 2018, according to Pro Football Focus. He also expanded his role in the passing game, setting career highs in every major receiving category. And then there's the team's record with Elliott (28-12) and without him (4-4).

The running back market: Will Todd Gurley's knee injury -- suffered after he signed his current market-setting extension with the Rams as a three-year veteran -- deter Dallas from following the same time frame with Elliott? Notably, the Cowboys extended 2011 first-rounder Tyron Smith and 2013 first-rounder Travis Frederick after Year 3 but waited until after Year 4 to extend 2014 first-rounder Zack Martin.

If he lands a new deal, Elliott will likely eclipse Gurley's $14.375 million AAV, topping a running back market that has been solidified with the recent contracts given to Gurley, Le'Veon Bell ($13.125 million AAV from the Jets) and David Johnson ($13 million AAV from the Cardinals). However, as Bell discovered this offseason, running backs appear to be facing a slowly moving glass ceiling rather than a booming marketplace.

About the tag: The Cowboys will certainly exercise Elliott's fifth-year option this offseason for the 2020 season. The most fiscally responsible move would be to then force Elliott to play out his rookie contract and two subsequent franchise tags, covering the 2021 and '22 seasons. However, Elliott would be rightfully upset if the team took that approach, and I think the Cowboys will work something out with him at some point.

While Bell "lost" money by refusing to play for the Steelers under the tag last season, he might have opened the door for more players to prioritize long-term security over the immediate compensation of the tag. After all, if Bell had suffered an injury while playing on the tag last season, his market this offseason would have been very different than it was even after he sat out '18; he had very good reason to be risk-averse there. Moreover, Dallas' ownership has a history of rewarding its players, as we saw recently with Lawrence. (I should add that the specifics of the next CBA are obviously unknown and could impact what happens to Elliott after 2020.)

The worst-case scenario

As mentioned in the intro, the Cowboys can work out long-term deals with everyone listed here if they so desire. But even if you look at the short-term picture, working under the assumption that Dallas will attempt to retain each of these players, it's not as bleak as it may seem. Elliott's fifth-year option and a restricted free agent tender on Smith will keep both players around through 2020. That leaves the franchise tag or transition tag available to be used on two of the remaining three players: Prescott, Cooper or Jones. Thus, Dallas would only need to sign one of those three players to retain either their rights or some form of negotiating rights to all five of the remaining core players through the 2020 season.

Of course, this would be a short-term solution to a long-term challenge. The team will need to lock up the players it intends to employ into the future. Whether or not using these Band-Aids to carry them through 2019 and into the 2020 salary cap is the Cowboys' plan, the Jones family will be handing out the Benjamins very soon.

Anthony Holzman-Escareno