The Tony Pollard injury against San Francisco was ugly but could have been much worse. Over the past two seasons, few running backs have been more explosive than the Dallas Cowboys‘ former fourth-round pick from Memphis.
Unfortunately, Pollard broke his fibula in Sunday’s Divisional Round. Pollard was in a contract year and was about to either get the franchise tag from Dallas or have a team back up a Brinks truck in free agency. Now, everything is murky.
What will the Cowboys do? What options do they have at their disposal, and will other teams still undergo a bidding war for Pollard, whose recovery time should be somewhere between six weeks to four months? Luckily for everyone, bones heal. This is not an ACL or an Achilles. Barring complications, he should return to his former glory.
Tony Pollard Has Time To Heal
Pollard won’t be fully recovered by the time March 7 rolls around. However, Dallas should have a good idea of how his recovery is going. According to Ian Rapoport, the Cowboys want to keep Pollard around, and the franchise tag was an option. A fracture like Pollard’s shouldn’t change the perception surrounding the explosive runner too much.
Pollard was an integral part of the offense. According to Sports Info Solutions, Dallas posted a rushing EPA of 0.06 with Pollard on the field compared to -0.06 with him off the field. Of the 35 runners with at least 150 carries, none averaged more yards after contact than Pollard (3.7). He ranked seventh in missed and broken tackles per attempt.
Pollard also ranked sixth in EPA per attempt and fourth in wins above replacement. He also led the league in breakaway percentage, meaning he created explosive runs at a higher rate than anyone else.
That matters at running back. Pollard is one of the few that legitimately holds value over his peers at a position that is hard to separate oneself. And that’s before getting into his ability as a receiver, which the Cowboys have consistently underutilized.
A Saturated Market Could Help the Cowboys
The free agent RB class is absolutely stacked as it stands. Saquon Barkley, Kareem Hunt, Jamaal Williams, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, Jerick McKinnon, David Montgomery, Devin Singletary, and Damien Harris are all free agents.
With all those names available — and most being more inexpensive options — it’s right to wonder if Pollard’s value sits above the franchise tag mark of $10.1 million. That would make him the ninth-highest-paid runner in the league before seeing deals for Barkley and Jacobs.
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The Cowboys are usually good to their own guys. When looking at how the rest of the roster breaks down, there isn’t another legitimate franchise tag candidate on Dallas’ roster.
It’s also important to remember that Jerry and Stephen Jones operate on a different plane than the rest of the league, particularly when it comes to how they value runners. If they want to keep Pollard around, they won’t give a team like Chicago, who has more money than anyone could spend in a single offseason, to come bearing gifts in the form of stacks of $100 bills.
For them, the NFL is still won on the backs of runners like Emmitt Smith. They won’t balk at paying a dynamic weapon in the backfield. The entire franchise clearly figured out that Pollard was the better option in the run game, even with Ezekiel Elliott’s money staring ownership in the face.
Situationally, Elliott still has value. But nothing is more important than creating explosive plays, and Pollard consistently does that.
What Does This Mean for Ezekiel Elliott?
Well, the Cowboys have options. Elliott is set to cost $16.72 million against the cap in 2023. Paying nearly $27 million split between two runners makes about as much sense for the Cowboys as making Urban Meyer an NFL head coach. They simply can’t go into 2023 paying that much between the two when other pressing needs are necessary to propel them over the Divisional Round hump.
Dallas could designate Elliott as a post-June 1 cut and save $10.9 million against the cap with $5.8 million in dead money. However, it probably won’t come to that. The Cowboys have always found a way to move money around their star players’ contracts to fit everything. In this particular case, Elliott has already been paid handsomely for his contribution to the team.
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At 27, Elliott is clearly multiple steps slower and is no longer the guy in the backfield. He’s already made $70.6 million during his seven-year career. It’s not out of the question that he would take a step back and take a flat-out pay cut.
Elliott is a fierce competitor and an outstanding teammate. He wants to win more than anything, and helping the team by freeing up money to keep Pollard around wouldn’t be surprising in the least.
He doesn’t have to. He doesn’t owe anything to the franchise. But Elliott doesn’t have much longer in this league. That’s the way the position goes. Dallas needs to be aggressive this offseason to take advantage of a conference that lacks truly elite quarterback play as of now. This could be a start.