The 2021 season was a rough one for Ezekiel Elliott. He finished the year with 1,002 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but set new career lows in rush yards per game (58.9), explosive runs (13), rushing first downs (55), yards after contact per attempt (2.73), conversion rate on third- or fourth-and-1 (66.7 percent), yards per reception (6.1), and yards per route run (0.68). 

Speaking out Cowboys OTAs this week, Elliott acknowledged his under-performance, but also its root cause.

"I mean, I was hurt last year, but it's football, after Week 1 no one is going to be 100%. That's part of the game," Elliot said, per NFL.com. "I think I knew I was tough, I think I knew I could play through injuries … it was definitely tough, but hey, it's my job."

After the Cowboys' season ended, Elliott revealed that he had suffered a partially torn PCL during the season. Why the Cowboys felt the need to keep him in the lineup -- and working ahead of backup Tony Pollard, who was more effective than Elliott as both a rusher and receiver for the third consecutive season -- despite the injury when he was so clearly hampered by it is a question that should be asked, but clearly Elliott felt he could contribute so long as he was on the field. 

Still, he knows he needs to be better this coming season. "I think every year we've got something to prove," Elliott said.

It's possible, if not probable, that Elliott is heading into his final season in Dallas. The six-year, $90 million contract extension he received from the team has been a looming albatross since the moment it was signed. The Cowboys restructured the deal before it even kicked in, which is why it won't become financially feasible for them to cut ties with him until after the 2022 season. 

He's set to count for $18.2 million against the cap this year, over $3 million more than the next-closest player at his position (Derrick Henry) and nearly $6.5 million more than the third-highest-paid back (Dalvin Cook). His 2023 cap hit is currently $16.2 million, but the Cowboys will be able to save nearly $4.9 million on their books by releasing him next offseason -- or $10.9 million by designating him a post-June 1 release. Barring a sudden return to his rookie season form (and maybe even if that happens), it seems highly likely that the responsible move will be to move on from him, and either pay Pollard a smaller amount to keep him from hitting free agency or find a new back in the 2023 NFL Draft.