In what is becoming an annual event, a high-profile running back is threatening a preseason holdout. On Monday, reports surfaced that Ezekiel Elliott will sit out training camp unless he gets a new contract from the Dallas Cowboys. Two days earlier, Melvin Gordon had announced a holdout from the Los Angeles Chargers and cited Elliott as an example of why running backs should command higher pay. Perhaps Zeke and his agent read Gordon’s comments and decided to strike while the iron is hot. Perhaps a holdout was always planned. Whatever the case, Elliott has made clear that he believes he’s underpaid and wants a new contract sooner rather than later.
The holdout threat may have taken Dallas a bit by surprise. It’s not as if Zeke isn’t in line for competitive compensation. Dallas picked up Elliott’s fifth-year option in April, guaranteeing him nearly $9.1 million in 2020 — money that will make Elliott the fourth-highest-paid running back in the league that year. But Zeke’s focus is on 2019, not 2020. According to reports, Elliott believes that the Cowboys plan to use him heavily this season, and he wants a long-term deal in place as an insurance policy against injury.
For their part, Dallas appears to want to keep Elliott around. Stephen Jones, Dallas director of player personnel, has indicated that signing Elliott to an extension is a team priority. In an odd bit of negotiating, Jones even set the floor for a deal at Todd Gurley’s recent contract — a contract that is currently the highest in the league at the position. Still, Elliott’s camp is betting they can leverage Zeke’s absence into an early deal, and based on their previous maneuvering, I’m betting that the Cowboys will cave.
The question is: Why?
In a league that is steadily paying less for running back production, capitulating to an Elliott holdout and making him the highest-paid ball carrier in the league would be a deeply contrarian move. According to data from Overthecap, the share of average team salary allocated to all rostered running backs has fallen from 6.8 percent of spending in 2013 to 4.5 percent in 2019.
Even elite backs aren’t immune from feeling the pinch. Le’Veon Bell sat out all of last season expecting to make up his lost wages on the free-agent market. Instead he ended up settling for a contract with less average compensation per year than what he was initially offered by Pittsburgh. It’s been a slow, incremental change, but teams across the league have moved toward an asset allocation model that favors many low-priced specialists over an expensive three-down bell cow.
Dallas already bucked the trend of devaluing running backs when they took Elliott with the fourth overall pick of the 2016 draft and then proceeded to give him 868 carries over his first three seasons. That, apparently, is just how the Cowboys are built. Jason Garrett is absolutely determined to “run the fucking ball.” But even if the Cowboys have fallen out of step with a league that believes paying “high first-round draft pick” money to a running back is gauche, it still pales in comparison to what will come next. Assuming the cap rises to $200 million in 2020,1 Zeke’s salary alone in his optioned fifth year will represent 4.5 percent of the Cowboy’s salary cap. If Zeke signs an extension before the 2020 season, his cap hit combined with the rest of Dallas’s spend at the running back position will likely be double the league average.
Profligate spending and contrarianism aren’t proof of incompetence, of course. Elliott on paper seems to be quite good at his job — and his appeal to Dallas might seem warranted. In 2018, Zeke led the league with 1,434 rushing yards on a league-best 304 carries, over 16 percent more than second-place finisher Saquon Barkley (261). If Elliott is worth twice as many wins to a team as a replacement-level running back would be, he’s probably worth twice the money. The problem is that having Zeke on the field isn’t worth even half a win to the Cowboys. Eric Eager at Pro Football Focus estimates that Zeke’s production in 2018 was worth just 0.2 of a win above a replacement player.
We know — and the Cowboys should, too — that rushing is not nearly as important to winning in the NFL as passing. But rushing is still a part of the game, and situational running is still critical. A back who excels in high-leverage spots can be quite valuable. It could be the case that Dallas believes it has an advantage in crucial moments with Zeke on the field that helps justify re-signing him.
Examples of situational football are legion, but three in particular stand out as being important in the run game. If the Cowboys are valuing Zeke for the skills that most help the team — and not just for his number of carries over a season — we would expect him to be at or near the top in each of these categories, dominating the plebes drafted rounds after him or those plucked from the NFL scrapyard.
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SOURCE: FiveThirtyEight, Josh Hermsmeyer