Ezekiel Elliott holdout: How we got here, what the future holds and what it means for Cowboys, Fantasy, gambling

There are currently several headlines dominating the NFL landscape, but Ezekiel Elliott takes the cake -- along with some sprinkles.

You could make the argument that the Los Angeles Chargers' contract battle with running back Melvin Gordon or the fully fractured relationship between the Washington Redskins and left tackle Trent Williams are right up there with Elliott being absent from Dallas Cowboys camp as both sides work to nail down a contract extension, but Gordon isn't in Elliott's stratosphere and Williams -- while an All-Pro talent when healthy -- is on the wrong side of 30, returning from injury and hasn't participated in a full 16-game season since 2013.

Elliott is only 24 years old and already a two-time All-Pro, a two-time Pro Bowler and a two-time league rushing champ in his first three seasons, and that's despite having missed six games in 2017 due to suspension. For all intents and purposes, the former fourth-overall pick has been the driving force behind the Cowboys' success since putting on the uniform, and no one in the organization can or has attempted to devalue his role on the team.

So, how did things devolve to the point where Elliott feels he needs to hold out to push the issue on his contract?

How the Cowboys fumbled before 2019

Let's hop in the DeLorean and time travel a few months back in time the 2018 season, when the groundwork for what we're seeing now was being laid -- even if inadvertently.

View Profile
Ezekiel Elliott DAL • RB • 21

The team suffered a rough start to the year thanks to an uneven offense led by longtime coordinator Scott Linehan, and one that failed to match the intensity of a top-five defensive unit. Unwilling to install consistent pre-snap misdirection and the refusal to utilize the mobility of quarterback Dak Prescott allowed teams to truly key in on loading the box to stop Elliott. That was met with calls to run him constantly up the A and B gap in spite of the traffic, and while Elliott leads the league in yards after contact on a regular basis -- it was still a brutalizing task that would add up physically over the course of the season.

It wasn't until the addition of Amari Cooper in Week 8 via trade that opposing defenses were forced to back off and play honest football, and the mix of Cooper and Elliott turned into gunpowder for the Cowboys; the team blasted off from a lowly 3-5 start to win seven of their final eight games. Something was still not quite right, though, as evidenced in Elliott battling through a noticeable limp over the course of late November into mid-December.

Forever the consummate competitor, he continued to ask for more, but that's not what his body wanted. It needed Linehan and the Cowboys to strike some sort of balance, which would include figuring out how to buoy a passing attack that ranked as one of the worst in the league. 

That never happened.

Why Elliott has leverage

Yes, feeding Elliott a hefty portion of snaps is ideal and essentially a requirement for the consistent success of the Cowboys' offense but, in reality, the team went too far on the back end of the season. What they did was the equivalent of strapping Elliott to an unvarnished chair and shoving a tube down his throat, followed by turning on a food pump. They denied the signs of a battered Elliott, and demanded he produce that much more when Cooper's blazing hot start with the team cooled noticeably.

To his credit, he did just that, delivering 754 rushing yards and 341 receiving yards from Week 10 through Week 16. These are monster numbers by any measure, but for a player who was also nursing a bad ankle and hadn't missed a single start because of it, they serve as a keen reminder of just how alien of a talent Elliott is. 

When looking at the offensive plan over his last seven regular season games, however, the fact Elliott's total touches plus targets add to a sum of 209 -- a chunky average of 29.85 per game -- can be considered overkill when also factoring in how he's on the field for decoy and pass blocking reps as well, and helps to apply perspective for why he wants to be paid now and not potentially two seasons later. Entering the Week 15 contest against the Indianapolis Colts, Elliott led in the NFL in touches from scrimmage, having 43 more than Todd Gurley, 53 more than Saquon Barkley, 81 more than David Johnson and a whopping 93 more touches than Christian McCaffrey. Elliott had touched the football 160 times in the previous six games alone, including 40 touches in Week 14 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

It's common knowledge that RBs have a shorter shelf life than most other positions, if not all others entirely, so Elliott isn't keen to look at what's occurred in his first three years and opt to wait another year or two before securing his future. He wants to at least have a shot at the type of tenured career future Hall of Famer Frank Gore is having, and things will have to change to achieve that sort of legacy.

Shedding Linehan and promoting a more creative Kellen Moore to coordinator offer hope, as does drafting flex talent Tony Pollard and bringing back veteran Alfred Morris to challenge for an RB2 role that could help spell Elliott as needed, but the promise of managing Elliott better to lengthen his career is a projection and not a guarantee. What is known and verifiable is how much he means to the team's offense (and defense, by virtue of controlling time of possession), and how much punishment he's had to take and dish out to average 101.2 rushing yards per game and climb to 5,247 yards from scrimmage in just 42 regular season games.

Elliott would never let his frustration with Linehan and the decrepit offensive plan show, but it was there.

It also didn't help smooth things over with Elliott by taking him off of the field in the red zone after riding him down the field to get there, or not utilizing him at all within the 20-yard range when he was on the field, which led to him being outclassed by Los Angeles Rams halfback Todd Gurley in the TD category. Elliott was only able to produce nine total touchdowns in 15 games, while Gurley amassed 21 in one game fewer. When you compare how Rams head coach Sean McVay used Gurley in the red zone versus Linehan's refusal to consistently do so with Elliott -- over the past three seasons, in totality -- you'll note how drastically different the two approaches have been.

Elliott is capable of doing what Gurley and New York Jets running back Le'Veon Bell have done over the course of their respective careers, but he was never asked to, and that lack of production has the Cowboys trying to keep him as close to Gurley's contract numbers as possible -- if not slightly below. Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million extension with $45 million guaranteed before his contract season in 2018. 

Those numbers are the bar Elliott is working to surpass, and all things considered, it's sort of a no-brainer to honor his request.

Why is Elliott 'jumping the line?'

Considering both Prescott and Cooper have had offers in front of them for quite awhile now but are refusing to sign as both play the market -- which works in their favor, but not Elliott's -- those asking why the latter would want to "jump the line" have their answer. It's simple, really, when you consider "the line" isn't about who everyone thinks should be paid first, but rather who is ready to get their deal done.

Prescott isn't. Cooper isn't. Elliott is.

And with $24.5 million in salary cap space and the ability to create more by extending Cooper to lessen his $13.9 million cap hit for 2019, the money for new deals is sitting on the table -- with only one remaining tier-A player stepping up to claim his portion.

As the old adage goes: You feed who's hungry right now.

The Cowboys do have some leverage in the situation, considering they went to bat for him in the federal court war against the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell in 2017. The league went on to win that fight, and then punished owner Jerry Jones with a $2.1 million financial penalty for his part in driving up the court costs by lengthening the appeal. Elliott became a model citizen off the field thereafter, launching youth football camps -- amongst other charitable acts -- along with becoming a more vocal and polished leader in the locker room, but another hiccup arrived this past spring by way of an incident in Las Vegas when Elliott went toe to toe with a security guard at a music festival.

He was detained but not arrested, released by law enforcement and it was later ruled by Goodell -- following a public apology via Twitter -- there was no violation of the league's personal conduct policy. Elliott dodged a bullet in that capacity, but more shots are being fired his way with the alleged Vegas victim deciding to press charges 55 days after the incident, and the alleged victim of a 2017 vehicle accident that involved Elliott now suing him and the Cowboys for $20 million -- claiming the team conspired with Frisco Police to cover up the magnitude of the incident.

Frisco PD, who is not named in the suit filed two years later and one year after a failed attempt at suing Elliott for $1 million, has since issued a statement that sheds light on the situation. They state everyone at the scene was offered but denied medical treatment, and although the accuser claims the Cowboys were negligent in allowing Elliott use of the vehicle involved, it turns out the Cowboys didn't own the vehicle. By the rule of Texas law, Elliott can be sued for any damages his insurance does not cover in the incident, and proving there's $20 million worth of damage or that there's a conspiracy involving law enforcement is a tall task.

Still, it's yet another headline Elliott finds himself in and -- fair or not -- the court of public opinion swings leverage from it toward the Cowboys. Team exec Stephen Jones noted from training camp that everything comes up in a negotiation with players, and you can bet all of this will as well.

It's a chess match every superstar goes through when it's time to ask for a bigger check.

Where things go from here

Patience is the name of the game in any NFL negotiation, and this one is no different. 

Sources close to the situation tell me both sides remain calm and optimistic about the talks, and things are moving in the right direction. While nothing is imminent just yet, there have been no stalls or outright fractures in the process, but there are still things to hammer out with guaranteed money, average annual salary and general language in the contract. There's a date many are justifiably keying in on, which is Aug. 6, because Elliott will lose an accrued season toward free agency if he doesn't report to camp in Oxnard (Calif.) before that NFL deadline. For Elliott, however, it could be of no consequence as he seeks to land a new deal before the expiration of his fifth-year option anyway.

To put it plainly, it doesn't matter if he doesn't qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2021 if he's signed to a new deal in 2019 or 2020. Although the Cowboys weren't expecting to ink Elliott until the spring of 2020 at the earliest, they've since changed gears to honor his value and proposals have been exchanged by both sides with talks ongoing. The preseason plan for Elliott remains unchanged from 2017 and 2018 -- wherein he didn't take a single snap in August -- so missing those four games for the Cowboys is of no consequence to either side. 

As long as things are settled and he shows up before the season opener against the Giants, there will more or less be no harm and no foul, and the current temperature from both sides lean heavily toward that being the case.

Barring an unexpected U-turn, this is a deal that should get done soon.

Fantasy ramifications of extended holdout

For the impact a potentially elongated holdout would have on the world of fantasy football, I reached out to three of the brightest fantasy minds here at CBS Sports to get their insight. 

Here's what they had to say:

If Elliott is present on Week 1: "If Ezekiel Elliott plays 16 games I expect him to be the No. 1 running back in non-PPR and the No. 2 running back in PPR. He should lead the league in touches, yards, and maybe even touchdowns." -- Heath Cummings

If Elliott misses the month of September: "Twelve games of Ezekiel Elliott is still better than 16 games of most other running backs. He's averaged a minimum of 19.5 PPR Fantasy points per game every year. I'll happily draft him in late Round 1 or later and try to skate by with a different back until Week 5." -- Dave Richard

If Elliott misses both September and October: "Let's play this out that Ezekiel Elliott sits out through the Cowboys' bye in Week 8. If he returns for the final nine games -- and is guaranteed to play in that many outings -- then I would still draft him in Round 3 in any format. This is similar to what we dealt with going into the 2017 season when we thought he was facing a six-game suspension at the onset of the year (he didn't serve his suspension until Week 10). I told people to draft him in Round 2 then. You want league winners, and Elliott is a league winner. You just need to know how many games he's expected to play. If he's out, it could be messy for Dallas' backfield, but I would lean toward rookie Tony Pollard as the player who could benefit the most. He's someone to draft with a late-round pick right now, just in case his role becomes significant." -- Jamey Eisenberg

Again, at the time this column was filed, the chances of Elliott missing even one game is slim. The chances of him skipping the entire season like Bell did? Those are lottery odds.

How Elliott affects Super Bowl odds

The elder Jones found himself on the defensive after a comment that was taken out of context, wherein he noted NFL teams don't need a rushing champ to win the Super Bowl. Context was important when listening to what he said, but the headlines had already parsed his words and it was all framed as a slight to Elliott. That could not have been further from the truth, as Jones later made clear with a scathing delivery, but it's also key to note that while other teams have won a Lombardi trophy without a leading rusher, Jones has not.

All three of his Super Bowl victories with the Cowboys have included Emmitt Smith leading the league in rushing yards.

For the sake of being thorough, though, what would not having Elliott do for the Cowboys' odds of playing the the Big Game come February? According to Stephen Oh of SportsLine, their chances at making the playoffs don't change much if Elliott is present and accounted for on Week 1, although they'd have a better chance if he's playing games. The odds aren't being kind to the team overall, however, putting their chances at making the playoffs slightly below 50 percent -- and that's with Elliott. 

The current season win total is set at 9, and the Cowboys are only +105 to make the playoffs, but -125 to miss altogether.

Swap out Elliott for Morris as starter and things fall off a cliff, with their record projection dropping a whopping 1.2 wins, per SportsLine, the largest possible fall for a team losing a player that isn't a star quarterback. Current odds to win the Super Bowl aren't much friendlier, sitting at 20-to-1 with the assumption Elliott will end his holdout in August. If something goes horribly awry and he chooses to sit, those odds would plummet to 80-to-1, per Oh, behind the Carolina Panthers and not far ahead of the rival New York Giants.

That's kind of a big deal, folks. For the Cowboys and Elliott, however, it's one they don't foresee being an issue. With Melvin Gordon also holding and having now requested a trade from the Los Angeles Chargers that was denied, the brass from North Texas know all too well how quickly things can deteriorate. Although the two situations are wildly different at the more profound levels, the Cowboys are still hell-bent on making sure Elliott's holdout doesn't turn into something much worse.

So far, Gordon and Elliott are heading in two different directions. In the end, that could mean their teams are as well.

Our Latest Stories