Like water running down a stream, the Dallas Cowboys' running back situation is a fluid one that is continuously moving. The Cowboys could release Ezekiel Elliott and franchise tag Tony Pollard. They could keep both running backs. They could also part with both players while using a high pick on the position in the upcoming 2023 NFL Draft.
All of those options are apparently on the table, based on what Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones said from the NFL combine Tuesday. Jones said the team will speak to (among others) Pollard's representatives in Indianapolis over the coming days. He confirmed that Pollard is among the candidates for the team's franchise tag. Tight end Dalton Schultz, who like Pollard is slated to enter free agency on March 15, is another franchise tag option.
"More than likely we'll use the franchise tag," Jones told Yahoo Sports. "Not necessarily on Tony, but (likely) we'll use it."
Jones was transparent when asked about Elliott, who has four years remaining on six-year, $90 million extension he signed in September of 2019. The contract does include a potential out this offseason.
"He's making a lot of money, and he knows that," Jones said of Elliott, who currently carries a $16.72 million cap hit for the 2023 season.
Jones spoke in the past tense when asked about Elliott's contributions to the team and whether or not he regrets signing Elliott to such a big contract.
"Zeke obviously did an amazing job for us," Jones said, via ESPN. "He came in right away and was dominant and helped us win a lot of football games. I don't second-guess that one, but it is hard for these guys to play 10 years at a real high level."
While still good, Elliott is no longer producing at an elite level and hasn't since his last Pro Bowl season back in 2019. Dak Prescott's injury somewhat justified Elliott's so-so 2020 season. But he followed that year up with consecutive seasons that failed to live up to his contract. After barely scraping 1,000 rushing yards in 2021, Elliott fell well short of that mark last season while averaging a career-low 3.8 yards per carry. Conversely, Pollard ran for 1,007 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry.
As alluded to above, the Cowboys' options also include using a relatively high draft pick on the running back position. Dallas currently owns four picks (Nos. 26, 58, 90 and 129) in the first four rounds of the draft.
"If you're taking a player in the top half [of the first round of the draft], you're hoping you got a player that's going to be here 10 years," Jones said. "And it's tough for running backs to last 10 years. There's not as many Emmitt Smiths or guys that play that long."
Reading through the tea leaves, it's clear the Cowboys would like to keep both Pollard and Elliott but only at the right price. Elliott will surely have to restructure his contract, and Pollard will have to agree to a fair but reasonable deal. It appears that Pollard is the higher priority, and if the team decides to part with Elliott, they would have no problem using one of their top four picks on finding his replacement.