Ezekiel Elliott is a pretty good running back. In fact, an argument can be made that he is the best running back in all of football right now after leading the league in rushing yards in two of his first three seasons. What cannot be argued is that he is the richest player in the NFL at his position now after the Dallas Cowboys reportedly signed him to a six-year contract extension worth $90 million with $50 million in guarantees.
The Cowboys are showing a lot of faith in Elliott continuing to be the bell-cow running back he was ever since he entered the league via the fourth overall draft pick in 2016. Investing in a talent and fan favorite like this — one that held out during training camp in order to get a long-term deal — might make sense from Dallas’ perspective, but it leads to a natural question: is a running back worth that much money even if he is among the best in the league?
For the Cowboys, the answer is obviously ‘yes.’ One has to wonder, however, whether the NFL’s best-run organization would agree with such an approach: the New England Patriots are well-known for stacking the running back position more horizontally, and not putting all their proverbial eggs into one basket. A look at the team’s current position group and its financial impact on the salary cap shows this:
James White: $4.63 million
Rex Burkhead: $3.00 million
Sony Michel: $2.19 million
Brandon Bolden: $1.70 million
James Develin: $1.60 million
Damien Harris: $716,534
As can be seen, the Patriots’ five running backs and fullback James Develin hit the books with a combined $13.8 million this year. With the salary cap set at $188.2 million for 2019, the entire offensive backfield takes up just 7.3% — peanuts compared to other position groups in New England and around the league. Elliott, of course, cannot be judged in the same light just yet considering that he is still playing on his rookie deal.
That being said, his extension and what it means are still worth talking about and comparing to the Patriots’ way of investing in running backs. After all, the deal averages an annual value of $15.0 million over its six years added on top of two seasons in which he hits Dallas’ cap with $7.9 and $9.1 million, respectively. The Cowboys are betting on Elliott to produce like the number one running back he was the last three years.
New England, for comparison, will continue to invest in depth over one single talent. Yes, Sony Michel might get paid considerably if he can keep up his trajectory but Bill Belichick and company won’t leave their comfort zone for him: being able to build a strong depth chart and rotation at the running back position still remains the top goal with or without Michel — something that the Cowboys may not be able to do with Elliott commanding top dollar at the position (or they may be, but at the cost of depth elsewhere).
While the salary cap numbers and real impact of the extension cannot be properly analyzed without the structure of it being reported, it is fair to say that the 24-year-old will take on an enormous portion of the Cowboys’ salary cap moving forward — despite the cap being expected to continue its growth over the next few years. Maybe the plan pays off, though, and the team rides Elliott to its first Super Bowl win since the mid-90s.
However, the contrast in investment style compared to the Patriots is obvious. New England takes advantage of the market situation at running back by brining players in on comparatively modest deals. Just look at James White, who is one of the premier receiving backs in football but has a cap hit of just $4.6 million this year. Elliott is the superior talent, yes. But is he worth that much more? Does he have that much more value to his team?
The Cowboys apparently think so (although they did likely not measure the Elliot contract versus the White deal), but when comparing this approach to the Patriots’ it would not be a surprise if the latter turned out to be the better for the long-term success of a team. New England’s track record speaks for itself, something that cannot be said about the Dallas Cowboys over the last few years.