Jerry Jones would politely decline if offered a mulligan on his now-fateful contract extension for running back Ezekiel Elliott.
In a Friday radio interview, the Dallas Cowboys’ boss expressed no regret over, and fiercely defended using, intensive “resources” to lock down both Elliott and linebacker Jaylon Smith with market-resetting pacts in 2019.
“Well, I like what we’ve spent and what we’ve done even going all the way back to picking him on Jaylon Smith,” Jones said on 105.3 The Fan, via Blogging The Boys. “That’s been a home run. He’s everything and more we thought he could be, coming back from the injury, when we got him in the second round. He was on the first round board. So that is absolutely a winner.”
“I’ve said this before: Zeke is our best player,” Jones continued. “He certainly, yesterday, would … he was up against a tough situation with where we are. But still, I like both those players. I think we’re lucky to have both of those guys. I wouldn’t take the resources that I’m putting there and trade not having those guys for those resources. I would not do that.”
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Jaylon Smith Burdenable
The dynamic defender (for better or for worse), drafted No. 34 overall in 2016, became the NFL’s third-highest-paid linebacker by inking a five-year, $63.75 million deal which included $35.4 million in guarantees — $19 million guaranteed at signing — and a $5 million signing bonus.
It was viewed as a massive investment, but the Cowboys were paying for upside, and they did well in backloading the contract, creating an out (post-June 1 cut) as early as 2021. Smith provided a solid return on investment in year one, leading the team with 142 tackles across all 16 starts. He added 9 pass breakups, 3 quarterback hits, 2.5 sacks, and a pair of forced fumbles.
His play is sagging a bit this season, the first under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Smith boasts the gaudy tackle numbers (101 combined stops), but he’s faced intense scrutiny for blown assignments and dreadful coverage effort. Still, his 2020 salary cap number ($7.7 million) is palatable, enough to justify what he has brought to the table (4 PBUs, 1.5 sacks and 1 interception).
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Elliott … Is Not
There’s much less to like about Zeke’s arrangement. Following a prolonged summer holdout, the three-time Pro Bowler received an NFL-record $90 million in total money across six years, of which more than $28 million is fully guaranteed. His base salary ballooned from $752,137 in 2019 to $6.8 million in 2020 and is scheduled to peak at $16.6 million in 2026.
Elliott earned every penny last season with a 301-carry, 1,357-yard, 12 touchdown campaign. The yards were the fourth-most in the league, while his touchdowns tied for fifth. He busted four rushes of at least 20 yards and 25.91 percent of his attempts went for first downs. He averaged a respectable 4.5 yards per tote and cut his fumbles in half (3) from 2018.
This year? Different story.
Through 11 games, Elliott has converted 181 carries into 707 yards (3.9 YPC) — failing to log his first 100-yard game until Week 11 — and as many touchdowns (5) as lost fumbles. He now leads the NFL in the latter category following Thursday’s mistake-filled loss to Washington.
“Just trying to fight for extra yards. I think maybe a foot knocked it out before I was down,” Elliott said of his sixth overall cough-up.
Some of Elliott’s stunning dip in production and explosion can be attributed to franchise QB Dak Prescott’s season-ending injury and numerous injuries along a bludgeoned offensive line. But some cannot be easily rationalized away. Dallas is paying him to perform at an elite level and he isn’t fulfilling his end of the bargain. Such is the reason you don’t splurge on running backs in this day and age.
If the Cowboys eventually decide to part ways, they might have to pull the trigger sooner rather than later as Elliott’s $12.4 million salary for 2022, his age 27 campaign, will become guaranteed if he’s on the roster beyond March 17, 2021 (the fifth day of the new league year).
But here’s the rub: The team would absorb a cap-killing $24.5 million in dead money by designating him a pre-June 1 cut in 2021, per OverTheCap.com. Even in a post-June 1 scenario, they’d free zero space while burdening $13.7 million in dead charges. Conversely, Dallas would gain $12.4 million and swallow a relatively minimal $4.1 million in dead cap if they pink-slipped Elliott post-June 1, 2022.
Barring a trade in which another team shoulders the majority of his deal, Elliott is locked into a roster spot and an every-down role next season. And Jones’ latest comments solidify that standing.
Follow Zack Kelberman on Twitter: @KelbermanNFL