The Dallas Cowboys possess one of the most potent running back duos in the league in Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott. If they want to keep the two of them together, their front office will have its work cut out for it, as Pollard’s rookie deal expires at the end of the 2022 season. Will Pollard be playing in Dallas in 2023?
Tony Pollard Earned Himself a Lot of Money This Season
For two years now, many football fans have lamented over the Cowboys’ misuse of their best running back. It’s been clear for a while that Pollard is better than Elliott. Yet, the Cowboys’ running game “ran through Zeke,” as Jerry Jones reminded us all too frequently.
This season, all that changed. An Elliott injury forced Pollard into a lead role for two straight games. The results were undeniable.
Pollard rushed for at least 115 yards in both of those games. He scored four touchdowns and broke off multiple splash plays. After Zeke returned, Pollard remained heavily involved. His snap share and touches were the highest of his career with Zeke active.
If the Cowboys want to bring Pollard back, they are going to have to pay him like the elite player he is.
Can the Cowboys Afford a New Contract for Tony Pollard?
On his rookie deal, Pollard comes with a $1.1 million cap hit. So, basically nothing. Additionally, the NFL has grown wise to the whole “running backs don’t matter” movement in recent years. We’ve seen fewer running backs drafted in the first round and more teams willing to let their guys walk.
Of course, the Cowboys are one of the last teams to spend a premier first-round pick on a running back, taking Elliott fourth overall. They compounded this mistake by giving Elliott the largest contract in running back history: six years, $90 million.
They can get out of Zeke’s contract after this season with only any $11.8 million dead cap hit. At 28 years old and displaying declining ability, the team would likely be wise to do that. But they’ve been so committed to Zeke his entire career that it’s difficult to imagine them letting him go.
That presents a difficult challenge when it comes to Pollard. How much money is this team willing to invest in the running back position?
In 2022, Elliott and Pollard combined to account for 8.76% of the Cowboys’ cap hit. Even if they get away with a hometown discount, the team can better allocate their funds than to have over 12% of it clogged up in running backs.
What might the Running Back Market Look Like?
This past spring, we saw several veteran running backs get new contracts. James Conner and Leonard Fournette both got three-year deals for $21 million. But both of them are older players. The better comparison would be what top-end backs got for their second contracts. Pollard probably won’t get Joe Mixon or Dalvin Cook money, but he’s going to want to get close.
Pollard will be 26 years old next season. He’s certainly not old, but in running back years, he’s probably closer to the end than the beginning. At age 24, Mixon got four years and $48 million. Cook got five years, $63 million at age 25.
It’s worth noting that Chase Edmonds got two years and $12 million. His usage more similarly compares to Pollard’s to start their respective careers. However, no one is suggesting the talent level of the two is close.
Given Pollard’s age and production, his contract floor is likely a little higher than what Conner and Fournette got.
Where Could Tony Pollard Land in 2023?
It would be a shame if the Cowboys chose a 28-year-old declining Elliott over a 26-year-old ascending Pollard. Unfortunately, it is likely a choice the Cowboys will have to make. And for what it’s worth, neither running back should be described as “young.”
The Cowboys will undoubtedly have at least one of these guys back in 2023. That player will be the lead back. But the team will need to find depth. The Cowboys are more apt to do that by drafting a running back, likely on day three, than overspend in free agency. The Cowboys are notoriously stingy when it comes to free agents, anyway.
If Pollard is not back in Dallas, there will be no shortage of teams in need of his services. The running back position may be devalued, but teams still need a competent starter. We have a lot of running backs with expiring contracts this season. While this rookie draft class is loaded with guys like Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, and Zach Evans, there are plenty of potential landing spots for free agents.
Teams like the Giants, Raiders, and Eagles have Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Miles Sanders in the final year of their rookie deals as well. We also have teams that don’t have an answer at running back.
The Bills, Dolphins, Texans, Commanders, Rams, Panthers, and Falcons all need a true starting running back. We also have teams with aging running backs potentially looking for a replacement. The Saints, Browns, and Titans fit the bill there.
My guess is the Cowboys will try and re-sign Pollard. However, I do expect the price to ultimately be too high. Unless Pollard is willing to take a discount to stay in Dallas, look for him to be playing — and likely starting — somewhere else in 2023.