The Dallas Cowboys have a serious problem on their hands. Star running back Ezekiel Elliott is holding out for a new contract and might not return until he gets it. Jerry Jones says he could envision the holdout lasting “months” and doesn’t seem thrilled about paying a running back top dollar. Instead of giving into Elliott’s demands, the Cowboys should trade Elliott for a high pick.
Time For Dallas Cowboys to Trade Ezekiel Elliott
First, let’s start by saying that Ezekiel Elliott is easily one of the two or three best running backs in the league. However, that doesn’t mean the Cowboys can’t get 80-90% of the production at a fraction of a cost. Running the ball simply doesn’t matter as much in 2019 as it did back in 1994, so investing a high percentage of the cap in an inefficient style of play simply isn’t smart team building.
The fact of the matter is that running backs don’t matter in today’s NFL, even the generational ones. Rushing production has more to do with playcalling and offensive line play than it does the actual running back. James Connor seamlessly filled in for Le’Veon Bell, C.J. Anderson replaced Todd Gurley, and Damien Williams replaced Kareem Hunt. These aren’t isolated instances, as this sort of thing happens all the time.
Nobody would argue that Demarco Murray is more talented than Ezekiel Elliott, but they had almost the same production when utilized in the same role. Some may think that Murray’s success was due to Tony Romo, while Elliott is carrying a weaker quarterback in Dak Prescott. This brings up to point two:
I wonder how much Zeke’s draft pedigree fuels the narrative that he’s an irreplaceable talent. Demarco Murray had essentially the same efficiency from 2013-2014 and nobody thought he was anything more than a cog in the machine pic.twitter.com/pYOJqJeTXH
— Dave Latham (@DLPatsThoughts) July 31, 2019
The Run Game Doesn’t Affect the Pass Game
Modern-day analytics are laying waste to older, outdated narrative throughout the league. For the longest time, most believed that running the ball well created a positive impact on the passing game. However, there is no evidence to support that claim.
Supporters of paying Elliott claim that Elliott’s presence brings extra defenders into the box, which in turn creates more throwing lanes. However, studies show that defensive formation has a significantly larger impact on box count than the running back. Elliott faced stacked boxes at essentially the same rate as other Cowboys’ backs, and there is no correlation between stacked box percentage and running back ability. Additionally, rushing success and volume has no measurable effect on play-action passing.
Some Elliott defenders believe that his pass-catching acumen makes him worthy of a large contract. While he more targets in 2018, that’s not necessarily a good thing for an offense. Running back targets are inherently less valuable than targets to wide receivers and tight ends, and only the truly elite pass-catchers like Alvin Kamara are capable of actually being efficient when targeted.
EPA/play and success rate on 1st & 2nd down running back targets, by team, 2018
Andy Reid the gawd pic.twitter.com/YquhveDkO8
— new-age analytical (@benbbaldwin) June 28, 2019
Elliott is an above-average pass-catching running back, but he’s not on Kamara’s level. From an efficiency standpoint, Elliott was the Cowboys’ worst receiver on third down and below average on first and second down. This data admittedly isn’t perfect, as it doesn’t take check-downs and throwaways into account. However, it’s still abundantly clear that the passing offense would be better off limiting Elliott’s role.
"But what about first and second down, when RB targets are actually good?"
True, but you're still better off throwing to your wideouts and tight ends in those situations: pic.twitter.com/hJ2qeJMmTp
— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) August 2, 2019
Running Backs Have A Short Shelf Life
Even if you think present-day Elliott is better than the numbers imply, he’s still not worth a second contract. Running backs have a notoriously short shelf life because they play one of the most physically demanding positions in the league. Even though he’s missed seven games, Elliott has recorded a staggering 868 carries throughout his three-year career. Nobody can maintain this ridiculous workload throughout the course of a second contract, so the Cowboys shouldn’t invest top dollar in what’s likely to be a worn-down player.
When looking across the league, it’s hard to find a big-money running back who played up to his contract. Todd Gurley has the biggest cap hit among running backs in 2019, and his downfall has been well-documented. Le’Veon Bell comes in second, and New York fired the general manager who handed out that deal. David Johnson, Devonta Freeman, and LeSean McCoy round out the top five, and each team probably wishes they didn’t have that contract on the books.
The next five running backs in terms of cap hit are Saquon Barkley, Jerick McKinnon, Leonard Fournette, Lamar Miller, and Elliott himself. Since Barkley, Fournette, and Elliot are on rookie contracts, let’s exclude them from this exercise. McKinnon tore his ACL after signing his contract and San Francisco signed Tevin Coleman to serve as the top back. Miller is the main guy for Houston but isn’t particularly impressive and never played up to his expectations.
For every Frank Gore, there’s 100 Demarco Murray’s. The Cowboys made the right move back then by letting him go in free agency. They need to do it again. Simply playing the odds shows that Elliott will probably break down before finishing his second contract.
Dak Prescott Does Not Need Ezekiel Elliott
The last false narrative surrounding the Cowboys is that Dak Prescott needs Ezekiel Elliott in order to be successful. In the eyes of many, Prescott simply isn’t a good enough quarterback to get by without an elite running game. Nobody is confusing Prescott with Tom Brady, but that narrative couldn’t be any more false. Based on past performances, Prescott is more than capable of succeeding without Elliott.
Prescott is essentially the same quarterback regardless of rushing rate or efficiency. Additionally, the 2017 season shows that the Cowboys can still win without Elliott. The Cowboys went 3-1 in the four games in which Tyron Smith played and Ezekiel Elliott didn’t. Dallas scored 23.5 points per game in those four games compared to just 22.1 on the season. This is obviously a small sample, but when it aligns with all the other data in the world, you have to assume it’s accurate.
Theory: "The Cowboys have to run the ball well for Dak to have success."
Fact: Once again, no relationship here. In the Dak-Zeke era, the Cowboys pass efficiency in games has been largely independent from their rush efficiency. This is true whether you use EPA, yards, etc. pic.twitter.com/S5HmVx8ldr
— Cowboys Stats & Graphics (@CowboysStats) February 24, 2019
Even if Prescott can’t succeed long-term without Elliott, the Cowboys owe it to themselves to find out now. If your quarterback can’t succeed without a high-volume rushing attack, then you need to find someone who can. The Cowboys are about to throw over $30 million a year at Prescott, and that obviously hinders the team-building process. Dallas needs to know if they have a guy who is truly worthy of that salary.
The longer the Cowboys hold on to Elliott, the less valuable he becomes. Teams are starting to realize how easy it is to replace running backs, and they’re getting smarter every day. If they trade Elliott now, they could probably get a first-round pick and maybe a little extra. However, if they wait, they might have to settle for a mid-round pick.