On March 15, the Dallas Cowboys released Ezekiel Elliott, ending a seven-year relationship between the team and its former first-round draft pick. Taken fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft, Elliott was one of the last running backs drafted inside the top five. In 2019, the former Buckeye back signed a $90 million dollar contract, also making him one of the last RB to sign a lucrative long-term contract.
A foolish deal from the team’s perspective? Perhaps. But Zeke became an immediate star and won two rushing titles in his first three seasons. Seems like a worthwhile investment to me. Regardless, Elliott was an outlier in many ways.
But after a superb 2019 season – his first playing under the new contract – Elliott’s production began to fall off. While remaining one of the best goal line backs in the league, his yards per carry dipped and his receptions also resulted in minimal gain. The contract became a negative talking point, and minor, inconvenient injuries popped up every few weeks. Zeke the Outlier became Zeke the Salary Cap Burden.
So after seven seasons and one last humiliating snap, Dallas cut ties with Elliott and his bloated contract a few weeks into free agency. Surely the Cowboys attempted to trade their former bell cow, but no team was willing to pick up his exorbitant tab. Zeke was left to his own devices, in search of a new team — and potentially one last chance to make a tangible impact.
Ezekiel Elliott’s final play for the Cowboys had him at Center to do…this pic.twitter.com/etiQiCppt9— Someone's An Idiot (@SomeonesAnIdiot) March 15, 2023
Unfortunately for the veteran runner, that search continues. Elliott was linked to both the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles last month, but those rumors appear to have been nothing more than gossip. Dallas has mentioned the possibility of bringing Zeke back at a significantly reduced salary, but how often do on-again, off-again relationships end well for those involved?
“Crop top with the mop top” is currently without a dance partner, but I do not think his involuntary solitude will last for much longer. Because Mr. 85 Yards Through the Heart of the South is still only 27 years of age (soon to be 28), has been recognized as a beloved teammate, and possesses a nose for the endzone like few others.
Right now, Zeke is stuck in running back purgatory, which is a popular landing spot for aging backs. They (RB) have been so good and so productive for so long, that they are hesitant or flat-out refuse to accept a diminished role. But NFL front offices don’t give a damn about nostalgia. No, they are completely turned off by these players’ age, presumed salary demands, and most recent performance. So much so that clubs are often not even willing to offer an incentive-laden, one-year “prove it” deal. They would much rather pursue cheaper, younger labor.
Put another way, many teams view Elliott as a nice Mercedes SUV, but an older model with high mileage. They are looking for an everyday driver, which makes the gas-guzzling, aging luxury vehicle a poor investment. Instead, these teams would rather purchase (or lease) a newer, cheaper mid-size sedan.
Does this mean that Zeke is out of options and/or potentially out of the league? Not at all. Because as the offseason progresses, it will become evident to at least one team that a proven, reliable vet is exactly what they need in their backfield. Especially if that vet has a bloodhound-like nose for the endzone. And the longer Zeke waits, the cheaper he becomes. Which is even more of a win for his eventual team, but a subtle loss for the former Buckeye.
However, Elliott may be at a point in his career where money is not a factor. He still genuinely seems to enjoy playing football, but has never enjoyed much playoff success. So you have to imagine that he would love to pursue a Lombardi Trophy before all is said and done. But we’re also not talking about a 35-year old man here. I actually think Zeke has three or more years left in the tank.
I hope that a team pounces sooner rather than later, because this three-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL rushing champ could provide tremendous value for a contender. It is not every day that you find a RB with Zeke’s resume, who is also under the age of 30. And even if he were not one of the most productive backs of the last decade, his pass blocking alone makes him a valuable asset.
So wise up, NFL teams. Let Zeke eat!