As the NFL league year came to an end on Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys made a move that was as logical as it was surprising: releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The three-time Pro Bowler, who was selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft by Dallas, has since rushed for 8,262 yards and 68 touchdowns, regularly finding a soft spot in both the defense and team owner Jerry Jones’ heart. Were staying
Last season, Elliott contributed 876 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 12–5 campaign.
But a contract that was the exact opposite of the current NFL landscape, paired with a more explosive and young teammate, prompted the Cowboys to move on.
“We mutually agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone was that he would be able to experience free agency, and that we could increase his flexibility and options,” Jones said in a statement, “Zeke’s impact and influence is explored in a very special and indelible way in the Cowboys franchise.”
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As the Cowboys and Elliott look to independent futures for the first time in seven years, Dallas’ immediate outlook appears clear to both. Tony Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns last year by averaging 5.2 yards per carry. After recovering from a post-season foot fracture, Pollard is expected to guide a Cowboys run game that head coach Mike McCarthy wants to feature more prominently. Add either undrafted free agent Malik Davis in 2022 or a draft selection at the position, and the Cowboys will move forward after June 1 with $10.9 million more salary cap space.
His market is further complicated by recent aggressive growth compared to (perhaps not entirely unrelated) declines in production and efficiency.
Yahoo Sports consulted with talent evaluators across the NFL to learn more.
reality awaits ezekiel elliot
Four seasons have passed since Elliott’s 40-day contract holdout forced Jones to sign the running back a six-year contract worth $90 million, including $50 million in guarantees. NFL contracts are far more complicated than just average annual value — and even then, Elliott’s $15 million per year mark was wild then and probably is wild now.
Only San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who agreed with the Carolina Panthers in 2020 at his current price point, has since eclipsed the mark. McCaffrey and his agent Joel Segal then argued that the player “speaks three languages” with elite running, pass-catching and blocking ability. The threat of the McCaffrey posse was on full display last season, when he caught 85 passes for 741 receiving yards and five touchdowns… Above His 1,139 yards and eight rushing scores. His compensation reflects the value of a hybrid running back-receiver in a league that pays receivers significantly more.
After McCaffrey, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is the only other running back who makes more than $12.6 million annually. Kamara has contributed 43% of his production and 31% of his scoring in the passing game, compared to Elliott, whose resume accounts for only 22% of his yardage and 15% of his scoring. This matters to NFL teams and their contract writers.
Talent evaluators from three different organizations agreed on one main premise: Pass-heavy concepts continue to devalue run talent. Injuries to running backs on second contracts — think Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams, Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans, Elliott and even McCaffrey — reinforce concerns about the durability of the position.
“Scoring first down is almost a bad thing now,” a pro scout told Yahoo Sports.
“There are only a handful or two true RB1s in the league now,” added another.
An AFC executive agreed that “it has become a two-man job rather than one head running back.”
That executive’s conclusion?
“I don’t think RB will get huge bucks as a position anymore.”
For Elliot, time won’t heal all
Two temporal factors hurt Elliott now: the years that have passed since he received an appraisal of value that no longer passes the eye test, and the days that the 2023 free agency cycle (and the legal and illegal tampering cycle) During which three major running back contracts have been awarded.
After Miles Sanders ran for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers signed him to a four-year, $25 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, per spotrock, Jamal Williams’ 1,066 yards and league-high 17 touchdowns season earned him a three-year deal worth $12 million with $8 million guaranteed in New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Lions, who let Williams walk, signed ex-Chicago Bear David Montgomery to a three-year, $18 million deal with $11 million guaranteed over an 801-yard, five-touchdown season.
To state the obvious, that means three teams that were required to pay something to run this spring no longer meet any of the criteria.
Furthermore, the three players whose production slots are in the vicinity of Elliott’s total production averaging between $4 million and $6.25 million per year are no meaningful guarantees after the two-year time frame. Elliott’s efficiency dropped from each of those three players in 2022, with Cowboy Belko averaging 3.8 yards per carry, compared to Montgomery’s 4.0, Williams’ 4.1 and Sanders’ 4.9.
Football Outsiders further assesses running back efficiency with DVOA rankings accounting for game scenarios and opponents. In the 2022 season, Sanders ranked sixth, Montgomery 22nd, Elliott 24th, and Williams 26th.
“He’s still valuable in short-yardage and goal-line situations,” said one of the pro scouts, who also noted Elliott’s pass-protection strength. “Zeke has great potential to continue to be a dominant first- and second-down. He has the unique size and strength, behind vision and good feet, to emphasize first-level defenses. I see him on a team that Looking to be a run-first offense and use his skill set to set up efficient first- and second-down chunks and limit third-and-long situations.
“But it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets if he’s going to take the role.”
jones sentiment Gaddi won’t give up on Elliot’s next deal.
Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next season?
The Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals were among the coaches and executives who predicted Elliott’s landing spots for Yahoo Sports that would benefit from his services. If the Los Angeles Chargers complete a trade for running back Austin Eckler (they have reportedly granted their request to seek one), Elliott might consider reuniting with his longtime coordinator and teammate Kellen Moore. Can, although poor plan fit and philosophy may be more personal than familiar. A better fit, perhaps, is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just released Fournette and hired Elliott’s longtime coach Skip Peet.
Every assessor believed that the chase for Elliott would Some Like the role, because although “the RB market is very forgiving, especially this free agency,” said one of the scouts, “he’s still ‘young enough,’ an opportunity/role somewhere with production history.” To perform
“And I don’t think anyone can deny their brutality.”
As for how much Elliott could earn, an AFC executive estimated that Elliott could receive a $5 million offer with incentives.
Even that executive questioned whether he would validate such a deal.
“Think the teams are paying mostly for the name,” the executive said. “I think the open market would be kind to that.”