Ezekiel Elliott's 40-day holdout for a new contract came to an end early Wednesday morning. The Cowboys gave Elliott a six-year, $90 million contract extension.
The deal makes Elliott the NFL's highest paid running back at $15 million per year. Elliott, who had two years remaining on his rookie contract for $12,952,137, becomes the first running back in league history to sign a $100 million contract. He is under contract for eight years running through the 2026 season worth $102,952,137.
The most relevant and analogous deal to the Elliott's negotiation was the four-year, $57.5 million extension (worth a maximum of $60 million through salary escalators) containing $45 million in guarantees Todd Gurley received from the Rams last July that dramatically changed the financial landscape for running backs. Gurley was an early first round pick, like Elliott, who got a new deal after his third NFL season when there were two years left on his rookie contract.
Here's a look at how the two contracts compare in the key contract metrics along with the running back benchmarks prior to the Elliott signing. New benchmarks established by Elliott's contract are in bold.
Avg. yearly salary
Overall contract guarantees
Le'Veon Bell ($27M)
Fully guaranteed (veterans) at signing
Fully guaranteed within 12 months
Three-year cash flow
First three new years
A couple of the metrics merit 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 in order to get 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.
All things considered Elliott got the better end of the deal than the Cowboys. More concessions were made by Dallas than Elliott. Form wasn't a bigger priority than substance for Rocky Arceneaux, who is Elliott's agent.
Dallas got the lengthy extension it desired where the average yearly salary gets inflated because $32 million is in the last two years of the deal. Although Elliott recently turned 24, getting a shorter-term deal to protect against changing marketing conditions isn't nearly as important for a running back as other positions with more career longevity. This is especially the case with a heavy usage running back like Elliott, who led the NFL with a career high 384 touches (combined rushing attempts and receptions) in 2018.
Elliott is accumulating mileage at an almost unprecedented rate. He is averaging 21.7 carries a game in the NFL (868 rushing attempts in 40 games). Only three running backs in NFL history have had a higher usage rate during their first three seasons. Edgerrin James, Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell are at 23.87, 23.06 and 22.67 carries per game.
Even if the odds on longevity and productivity are defied, it's extremely unlikely that teams will be lining up to pay big money for years where the expectation is diminishing returns on the football field. Had Elliott given up four new years like Gurley so his deal would expire when he is 29 instead of 31, signing another contract where he would be making $32 million over the first two years probably would be a difficult task. Since the last two years in 2025 and 2026 are a dicey proposition for Elliott, his average through the first four new years, which mirror Gurley's deal are a more accurate reflection of the contract's true value because of how it's structured.
Elliott's contract averages $14.5 million per year after the first four new years (through 2024). The base value of Gurley's four year extension averages $14.375 million per year. Gurley is currently scheduled to make $58.5 million if plays out his contract because of his 2018 performance earning a $1 million base salary escalator for 2023. He can make as much $60 million depending on his production over the next three seasons. Elliott can't increase the $58 million of new money in the first four new contract years since he doesn't have any incentives or salary escalators.
Not only is Elliott now the league's highest paid running back, Dallas didn't hold the line structurally. Elliott also established new standards in some of the more important contract metrics. His deal is the benchmark for amount fully guaranteed at signing, money fully guaranteed within 12 months, overall guarantees and compensation in the first three new years. Raising the bar in overall guarantees was more expected than the other metrics because of the deal's length.
The amount fully guaranteed at signing represents the money in the first two contract years (through 2020). As with other lucrative Cowboys contracts, Elliott's guarantees beyond the second year are conditional. Base salary guarantees after the second contract year are for injury only initially at signing. What's fully guaranteed within 12 months is different because of early vesting with the contract guarantees after the second contract year. Elliott's $9.6 million 2021 base salary becomes fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the 2020 league year (i.e.; 2021 skill and salary cap guarantees occur on March 22 in 2020). His $12 million 2022 salary guarantee operates in the same manner. The skill and salary cap guarantees for this $12 million kick in on the fifth day of the 2021 league year.
The guarantees in linebacker Jaylon Smith's recent extension aren't as player friendly as Elliott's. Smith's full guarantees in the third and fourth contract years vest on the fifth day of the league year of that specific year (i.e.; 2021 skill and salary cap guarantees occur in 2021).
Practically speaking, the early vesting of the guarantees and Dallas structuring the contract with a $13 million option bonus, which is prorated on the salary cap, essentially assures that Elliott won't be going anywhere until 2023 at the earliest although his $7.5 million signing bonus is fairly modest.