The Dallas Cowboys on Monday became the second NFL team to deploy the franchise tag in 2023, as ESPN reported Tony Pollard will receive the franchise tender. With Pollard under contract for next season, the Cowboys still have one significant running back question left on their roster: What will become of Ezekiel Elliott?
Ezekiel Elliott Must Take a Pay Cut To Remain With the Cowboys
Elliott used to be a key driver of the Cowboys’ offense after being drafted seven years ago, regularly topping more than 300 touches while leading the NFL in rushing yards in both 2016 and 2018.
But in recent years, his production has dwindled. While he’s still capable of short-yardage work (22 rushing touchdowns between 2021-22), Zeke has averaged only four yards per carry over the past three seasons. Last year, he managed only five runs longer than 20 yards and averaged 1.5 yards after contact per attempt, tied for 35th in the league.
Elliott is no longer the player he once was, but his contract still pays him like he is. In 2022, his $18.22 million cap hit was the largest charge among running backs, while the $12.4 million cash he earned ranked second behind Derrick Henry.
If the Cowboys don’t adjust Elliott’s deal, it will be a similar story in 2023. Elliott is due a $16.72 million cap figure (first among RBs) and a $10.9 million in cash (fifth).
However, there seems to be almost no chance the Cowboys will move forward with Zeke at those numbers. Executives Jerry Jones and Stephen Jones want Elliott back, but both acknowledged in early February that the two sides would have to “talk business” to see if the two sides can reach an agreement, per Clarence Hill of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
That “business” will almost certainly entail a pay cut for Elliott.
Elliott is Looking at a Pay Cut, Not a Restructure
When NFL teams discuss reworking player contracts, they are sometimes referring to “restructures,” which allow clubs to convert base salaries into proratable signing bonuses.
The Cowboys have restructured Elliott’s deal before, including in 2021, when they converted $8.6 million of his $9.6 million salary into a bonus to create roughly $7 million in additional cap space.
Restructures can free up cap room in the short team, but they can lead to headaches down the road. These financial maneuvers essentially kick the can down the road, adding extra dead money to the end of contracts and making it more difficult for teams to cut players in the future.
Notably, Dallas did not rework Zeke’s contract heading into the 2022 season. His $18.22 million cap hit was an astounding figure for a running back, but the Cowboys chose not to adjust his terms, perhaps an indication that they planned to approach him about a pay cut or release in 2023.
That time has now come. For his part, Elliott sounds amenable to accepting a pay cut. Michael Gehlken of the Dallas Morning News reported in January that Zeke is open to taking less money in 2023.
“I’ve definitely thought about it,” Elliott said after the Cowboys’ playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. “I want to be here. I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t tell you the future. But I definitely want to be here.”
What Would a New Elliott Contract Look Like?
Two critical factors will be in play as the Cowboys and Elliott discuss a potential pay cut: how much Dallas can save by releasing Zeke, and how much Elliott would earn on the open market.
If the Cowboys cut Elliott before June 1, they would save $4.86 million on the cap while taking a dead money charge of $11.86 million.
If they use a post-June 1 release designation, the Cowboys could open $10.9 million in cap space. They’d absorb $5.82 million in dead money in 2023 and $6.04 million in 2024. Zeke would instantly become a free agent, but Dallas would have to hold his $16+ million cap charge until June 2, which would limit their ability to sign free agents in March.
The Cowboys hold a lot of leverage in terms of the free agent running back class. This offseason features a buyer’s market at RB, as Saquon Barkley, David Montgomery, Devin Singletary, Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams, and a host of others will become free agents.
With all those options on the table, it’s almost inconceivable that Elliott could land more than $3-4 million on the open market — and that might even be too high. His name value and draft pedigree should keep Elliott in the league, but it won’t be at a high salary.
Still, the Jones family loves Zeke and is unlikely to want to embarrass him by mandating that he accept something close to a league-minimum contract.
Instead, the Cowboys could offer Elliott a low base salary plus a signing bonus that would bring his 2023 compensation to roughly $5 million. Because that bonus would prorate over the rest of Elliott’s deal, Dallas could reduce his cap charge for next season by at least nearly 50 percent.
The Cowboys could also include incentives in Zeke’s contract that would allow him to earn back some or all of his lost money. Dallas could make those incentives “not likely to be earned” by setting the thresholds above where Elliott performed in 2022 — in that case, the incentives wouldn’t count on the 2023 cap.
While a cap figure of around $8 million for a 28-year-old running back with a lagging track record of production doesn’t make good business sense, Jerry Jones may still believe the Cowboys “go as Zeke goes.” Dallas has the leverage to play hardball in these negotiations, but they’re far more likely to opt for a softball approach.