Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys aren't close to a new deal, according to executive vice president and chief operating officer Stephen Jones. Nonetheless, Jones is confident an agreement can be reached with the holdout running back before the regular season opener against the Giants on Sept. 8 because "things happen real quick, sometimes within hours."
Elliott, who didn't report for the start of Cowboys training camp on July 26, has been working out in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico during his holdout. The 2016 first-round pick has been insistent that he won't play this season unless he gets a new deal. Elliott is under contract through the 2020 season after the Cowboys exercised their fifth-year option on him. He is scheduled to make $3,853,137 this season and $9.099 million in 2020.
ESPN's Ed Werder reported last week that Dallas has an offer on the table between Le'Veon Bell's $13.125 million per year with the Jets and the $14.375 million per year the Rams gave Todd Gurley, which would make Elliott the NFL's second-highest-paid running back. Jones doesn't want to sign Elliott to a market-setting contract like the Saints recently did for wide receiver Michael Thomas. The same goes for quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, who have also been negotiating with the Cowboys. Thomas' contract extension averaging $19.25 million per year is a 6.25 percent increase over the $18 million per year extension Odell Beckham, Jr. received from the Giants last season. The only way Thomas gets to the $20 million per year that was initially reported is by hitting all of his performance bonuses, which require him to keep consistently performing like he has in his three NFL seasons.
Jones was singing a different tune regarding Elliott in late February at the combine. "He's right there at the top of the best in the business, if not the best," Jones said at the time. "We certainly saw what Gurley got paid, and we know that's probably where it starts and we'll go from there." Jones' new stance essentially is Bell is a more accurate barometer of a top running back's value because he got his deal on the open market in free agency, when every team had a chance to sign him.
I have an idea for how the Cowboys should attempt to end the contract stalemate with Elliott. Before we get to it, let's put the running back market in better context, as well as explore Dallas' treatment of highly productive first-round picks they drafted since the rookie wage scale was implemented in 2011.
Defining the top of the running back market
Three contracts define the top of the running back market. In addition to the Bell and Gurley deals, David Johnson signed a three-year, $39 million extension containing $31,882,500 of guarantees hours before the Cardinals' 2018 regular season opener. The following chart compares the three deals in a few key contract metrics.
|Total guarantee||Fully guaranteed||Signing bonus||3-year cash flow||First 3 new years||Average per year|
Notes: 1) The maximum value of Gurley's deal is $15 million per year because of salary escalators. 2) The maximum value of Bell's deal is $15,037,500 because of incentives and salary escalators. 3) The maximum value of Johnson's deal is $15 million per year because of incentives.
A couple of the metrics warrant an explanation. Professionals within the industry (agents and team negotiators) typically value deals by new money, which is the amount of compensation in a contract excluding what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal. For example, Gurley had two years left on his contract totaling $ 11,949,978 when he received his new deal. Although he signed a six-year contract for $69,449,978, it's considered as a four-year, $57.5 million extension with a new money average of $14.375 million per year among industry professionals. Gurley's remaining contract years are subtracted from the $69,449,978 six year total to arrive at this number.
Compensation in the first three new years is the amount of money in a contract exclusive of what a player was scheduled to make before receiving a new deal, just like with new money when determining average yearly salary. The cash flow analysis looks at the compensation in its totality. The focus is on the amount of money received in the first three years of a contract regardless of whether it's considered as new money. Both metrics have the same dollar amount when a player signs a new contract as a free agent or when his contract is on the verge of expiring.
Each deal gives the running backs the ability to earn additional money based on performance. Gurley's 2023 base salary can increase by a maximum of $2.5 million. Rushing for at least 1,200 rushing yards or 1,650 yards from scrimmage (combined rushing and receiving yards) with the Rams making the playoffs in the same year once during the 2018 through 2022 seasons raises Gurley's 2023 base salary by $1 million. Accomplishing the feat twice makes the escalation $1.75 million instead of $1 million. Doing it on three separate occasions would bring the total increase to the $2.5 million limit.
Gurley has another way trigger the increase. Being named the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year, which Gurley was in 2017, or league MVP by either the Associated Press or Pro Football Writers of America once during the 2018 through 2022 seasons is worth $1.25 million. Winning awards in two different seasons would get Gurley the maximum $2.5 million raise.
The escalation is capped at $2.5 million regardless of how many of the milestones Gurley achieves. Gurley gaining 1,251 yards on the ground and amassing 1,831 yards from scrimmage last season has increased his 2023 base salary by $1 million.
Bell has $1.5 million in annual incentives. He earns $500,000 for at least 1,800 yards from scrimmage. He gets an additional $500,000 by reaching 2,000 scrimmage yards. There's another $500,000 for the first threshold with the Jets making the playoffs.
Bell also has a $550,000 base salary escalator in each of the last three years based on his performance in the preceding season. The three different ways to trigger the increase are getting 2,000 or more yards from scrimmage, being named the AP's NFL Offensive Player of the Year or winning the AP's MVP award.
Johnson has $2 million of incentives each year beginning in 2019 for the remainder of the contract. He has a laundry list of performance milestones where he earns $375,000 for each of the first two that are reached. There specific milestones are 1,700 yards from scrimmage, 1,800 yards from scrimmage, 15 offensive touchdowns, 17 offensive touchdowns and 1,300 rushing yards. The amount earned doubles if the Cardinals make the playoffs that season. The other $500,000 comes from having a minimum of 2,000 yards from scrimmage, winning the AP's NFL Offensive Player of the Year award or being the AP's MVP.
The current running back salary standards in key contract metrics relevant to Elliott's negotiation are listed below.
Average Yearly Salary: $14.375 Million (Gurley)
Overall Contract Guarantees: $45 Million (Gurley)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing: $31,194,750 (Saquon Barkley)
Fully Guaranteed At Signing (Veteran): $27 Million (Bell)
Fully Guaranteed Within 12 Months: $34.5 Million (Gurley)
Signing Bonus: $21 Million (Gurley)
Three Year Cash Flow: $40 Million (Gurley)
First Three New Years: $47,050,022 (Gurley)
Cowboys' first-round pick contract extension history
The Cowboys have a history of giving market-setting extensions to their highly productive first round picks who have been under the rookie wage scale. 2011 first round pick Tyron Smith became the NFL's highest paid offensive lineman in 2014 on an eight-year, $97.6 million extension with $40 million in guarantees. His $12.2 million average yearly salary was a 6.09 percent increase over Browns left tackle Joe Thomas' $11.5 million per year.
2013 first round pick Travis Frederick replaced Alex Mack as the league's highest paid center when he signed a six-year, $56.4 million extension, which had $28,162,822 of guarantees, in 2016. His $9.4 million average was 4.4% more than $9 million per year the Falcons gave Mack as an unrestricted free agent a few months earlier.
2014 first round pick Zack Martin took offensive guard salaries to new heights last year with his six year, $84 million extension containing $40 million in guarantees. His $14 million per year represented a 5.26 percent increase above the $13.3 million per year deal Norwell got from the Jaguars in 2018 free agency.
Frederick and Smith received new deals before their fourth seasons started. Elliott is at the same point of his rookie contract as they were when their extensions were signed.
The Cowboys should be willing to give Elliott a couple of wins in the negotiation in the most meaningless contract metrics where he is made the NFL's highest paid running back by average yearly salary. The contract's length could be consistent with their other first round pick extensions meaning at least six new years would be added.
Elliott would get the richest contract ever for a running back in the process. The $96 million contract running for seven years Adrian Peterson received from the Vikings in 2011, which was really a six-year extension averaging $14,213,333 per year, is the benchmark for overall dollars.
It really shouldn't matter to Dallas if Elliott became the first running back in the league's history to sign a $100 million contract provided the Cowboys hold the line structurally. The market wouldn't be set in the more important aspects of the contract, such as amount fully guaranteed at signing, three year cash flow, first three new years compensation and signing bonus.
Gurley's contract has an incredibly player friendly structure. Nearly 65 percent of the new money is earned in the first two new years. It's remarkable that Gurley's three year cash flow (2018 through 2020) is more than Bell's considering he had two years remaining on his rookie contract when he signed his extension.
A range of what Dallas should consider offering Elliott on a six year extension, which would be eight total contract years running through the 2026 season is below.
|Low end||High end|
Average yearly salary
Overall contract guarantees
Fully guaranteed at signing
Fully guaranteed within 12 months
Three year cash flow
First three new years
Dallas wouldn't be getting into Thomas market setting territory at the high end for Elliott. $15 million per year represents a 4.35 percent over Gurley's $14.375 million. It's also below the average increase for three offensive linemen over the previous standard at their respective positions, which is 5.33 percent.
The high end average yearly salary is also in line with the maximum value of the top running back deals. At $15 million per year, there shouldn't be any mechanisms for Elliott to increase his compensation with incentives or salary escalators.
The amount fully guaranteed at signing would be the money in the first two contract years (through 2020). It's the same as what's fully guaranteed within 12 months because there isn't any early vesting of contract guarantees after the second contract year, like DeMarcus Lawrence has. The 2021 and 2022 base salaries would be guaranteed for injury only initially at signing but become fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league year of that specific year (i.e.; 2021 skill and salary cap guarantees occur in 2021). The different treatment from Lawrence is largely because of Elliott's off-the-field issues and lack of maturity.
There's more flexibility with the overall guarantees because there isn't early vesting. Dallas shouldn't be uncomfortable with the guarantees equaling the compensation in the first four years if in this manner although Gurley's $45 million in total guarantees could be exceeded. The high end would still be less than $49 million Gurley makes in the first four years of his deal (2018 through 2021).
The 8 year total is derived from adding the new money to Elliott's existing contract. For example, the $87 million of new money and the $12, 952,137 in the final two years of Elliott's rookie deal is $99,952,137.
Some agents are more concerned about form over substance than others. Form can be effectively used in recruiting prospective draft picks to become clients. If Rocky Arceneaux (Elliott agent's) falls into this category, a deal along the lines of my suggestions should get done before the start of the regular season. Arceneaux insisting on Elliott being the benchmark for running backs in nearly every contract metric, especially the more important ones, increases the likelihood of history repeating itself where the running back's holdout continues into the regular season. In 1993, Emmitt Smith didn't get a new contract making him the league's highest paid running back until the Cowboys started with an 0-2 record while trying to repeat as Super Bowl winners.
The situations aren't quite the same. Those Cowboys were facing two teams, the Redskins and Bills, who had winning records in 1992. The Bills game was a rematch of the previous season's Super Bowl XXVII. The 2019 Cowboys aren't defending Super Bowl champions. The current squad opens with two NFC East rivals, the Giants and Redskins. Both teams had losing records last season and aren't expected to be playoff contenders. Losing either of those games might give Elliott the leverage needed to get the type of market setting contract Jones is trying to avoid.