The Dallas Cowboys are facing a decision on star playmaker Ezekiel Elliott, not just about his future in Big D but additionally his current role on the team. Elliott’s $90 million contract undoubtedly makes him untradable, and there is a strong argument to be made that the star is not even the most productive running back on the Cowboys roster. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell took a deep dive into comparing Elliott and Tony Pollard performance in 2021 and reached the conclusion that the Cowboys would be best served using the three-time Pro Bowler as the team’s RB2.
“Pollard has been more explosive than Elliott over his first three seasons in the league, but in 2019 and 2020, Elliott was a more reliable option,” Barnwell detailed on May 20. “Elliott’s success rate and FDOE marks topped those of Pollard. Pollard’s yards per carry were better than his backfield mate’s, but you could have made a case for Elliott remaining as the primary runner. There are no arguments to be made after last season.
“Elliott has been an underrated receiver for most of his career, but again, Pollard tops him here. Pollard was targeted on 27.6% of his routes to Elliott’s 17.3%. Pollard also was targeted at a higher rate in 2019 and 2020. In each season, Pollard also gained more yards per route run than Elliott, although the gap was more significant last season, when Pollard gained 2.1 yards per route run to Elliott’s 0.8 mark.”
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Barnwell: ‘Pollard Should Be Moved Into the Lead Role’
Despite Pollard averaging 5.5 yards per carry compared to Elliott’s 4.2 yards, the Cowboys star still received 237 carries versus the former Memphis back’s 5.5 yards per rush. Elliott’s pass protection may be underrated, but it is hard to argue this makes up for the discrepancy in production.
The Cowboys insist that a player’s contract does not impact their depth chart status, but Elliott’s $12.4 million salary will puts that theory to the test in 2022. Not only does Elliott have a $90 million deal, but the running back is also one of the faces of the franchise. Pollard emerged as the more explosive back, but the Cowboys remain likely to continue to lean on Elliott as the team’s RB1.
“Based on how they played in 2021, Pollard should be moved into the lead role,” Barnwell added. “Will the Cowboys actually make that change? I’m skeptical. For one, the organization is paying Elliott like he’s a superstar. While Dallas would surely have cut him this offseason if that had been financially feasible, the team is on the hook to pay him $12.4 million in 2022. It can move on from his deal and save nearly $5 million in cap space in 2023, and the decision to not restructure his contract this offseason hints at that likelihood next spring.”
The Cowboys Could Move on From Both Zeke & Pollard in 2023
The Cowboys have a potential out in Elliott’s deal after the 2022 season allowing the team to move on from the remaining four years on his contract. Dallas would still have to take an $11.86 million dead cap hit if they release Elliott, per Spotrac. Rather than releasing Elliott next offseason, the Cowboys could approach the veteran and attempt to restructure his deal.
Elliott owns the most lucrative contract of any NFL running back and the market for rushers has drastically decreased in recent years. The Cowboys star was able to land one of the final big-money deals given to a running back, and it has negatively impacted Dallas’ cap situation.
The challenge for the Cowboys is Pollard is a free agent next offseason and due for a sizable raise from the $965,000 salary he will make in 2022.
There is a very real scenario where the Cowboys move on from both running backs in favor of taking a rusher high in the 2023 NFL draft. The Cowboys could also look to release Elliott and re-sign Pollard but drafting a running back would be the most affordable move at the position moving forward. Dallas passed on using a draft pick on a running back in 2022.