INDIANAPOLIS — In 2016, the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick. In 2019, they signed him to a six-year extension worth $90 million. In 2023, Elliott’s future is in question because he has a $16.7 million salary cap figure and declining production.
Would it be worth the price tag for the Cowboys to select a running back in the first round again?
“I think it depends on what part of the first round,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “If you’re up there in the top 10, it’s hard to take them there. You definitely, if you’re taking a player in the top half, you’re hoping you got a player that’s going to be here 10 years. And it’s tough for running backs to last 10 years. There’s not many Emmitt Smiths or guys that play that long.”
There is a significant financial difference from No. 4 to No. 26. Elliott’s rookie contract was four years, $24.9 million. Last year, the Cowboys selected tackle Tyler Smith at No. 24 overall and he has a contract for four years worth $14.55 million.
But do Jones’ comments represent a philosophical change in the last eight years?
“Zeke obviously did an amazing job for us. He came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games,” Jones said. “I don’t second-guess that one but it is hard for these guys to play 10 years at a real high level.”
The use of the past tense by Jones had more to do with the 2016 decision than what could happen in 2023, but Elliott’s case also plays into the upcoming decision with Tony Pollard. Do they pay him a large sum on a long-term deal?
Without a multi-year agreement by March 7, the Cowboys are likely to use the $10.1 million franchise tag on Pollard, who had his first 1,000-yard season in 2022 and was named to the Pro Bowl. He had surgery to repair a high ankle sprain, suffered along with a fractured fibula in January’s divisional-round playoff loss to the 49ers, but is expected to be ready to go before training camp.
“More than likely we’ll use our tag,” Jones said. “Not necessarily on Tony but we’ll use our tag.”
To tag tight end Dalton Schultz again would cost the Cowboys $13 million. If they tagged safety Donovan Wilson it would be $14.5 million. The most economical decision for a team that will require some maneuvering just to get under the $225 million cap is to tag Pollard.
And they could ask Elliott to take a pay cut as well. Elliott has no more guaranteed money left on his contract. For his part, Elliott wants to remain with the Cowboys.
“Can’t tell you the future, but definitely want to be here,” Elliott said after the playoff loss in San Francisco.
If the Cowboys chose to release him, they could save close to $5 million or $11 million against the cap depending on the designation.
“We haven’t finalized any decisions yet in terms of what that room’s going to look like, but Zeke’s a tremendous competitor, just a great teammate, a great competitor,” Jones said. “Obviously he’s making a lot of money. He knows that. Obviously, Tony Pollard’s up for free agency, so that’s a challenge. We’ll work through that.”
Even if the Cowboys move on from Elliott and place the tag on Pollard, they will need another running back since Malik Davis, an undrafted free agent in 2022, is the only other tailback that had a carry last season.
That could lead them to a running back in the first round again, like Texas’ Bijan Robinson, who is considered the best in the class by many draft experts.
Picking at No. 26, the Cowboys will be at the mercy of the draft board.
“Once you’re into 26, normally, I think we say we’ve got 18-20 [players graded as] first-rounders on the board,” Jones said. “So usually when you’re picking 26, you’re pretty lucky if there’s still a first-rounder left on your board. Usually that’s been picked over and you’re taking those players there.
“I think certainly if the right guy were there and you loved him and you needed him, then you’d take him.”