Saquon Barkley is in Ezekiel Elliott's corner.
Most NFL discussions that involve determining who the best is at the position feature both running backs at the top, but the reigning Rookie of the Year understands he doesn't yet have the stripes of Elliott. The latter is a two-time NFL rushing champ and two-time All-Pro, both categories being only a six-game suspension in 2017 away from likely seeing Elliott perform a hat trick. Like Elliott, however, Barkley finds himself the centerpiece of an offense that relies heavily on his ability to change the game, and while the Cowboys' front office deploys any and all negotiating tactics in the media -- Barkley prefers to get to the bare bones of it all.
He says when Elliott is on the field, teams fear the Cowboys, and when he isn't; well, not so much.
"I've played against [Ezekiel Elliott] two times [last] year, and my teammates that were here before me have played against him two times a year," Barkley said to NFL Network, before expounding upon his point, via Kimberly A. Martin of Yahoo! Sports. "If you ask anybody in the NFL that's played against the Dallas Cowboys, 'Would you rather play the Dallas Cowboys with Zeke, or without Zeke?,' I think everyone knows what the answer would be. He's a very important piece of that team."
Barkley was careful to frame his comment in a way that didn't discount the fact it's a team game, but is also clear that he's not naive to how true value of a player should supersede positional value, in the cases where that exception applies. For his money, and much akin to his own value with the New York Giants, Elliott isn't simply another running back the Cowboys can pretend to do without.
"No one's more important than anyone on any team, to be honest," Barkley explained. "It's just how I feel. I feel like if you want to win a championship, it's not just one person. Even though one person might get most of the credit, it takes 11 people, but when it comes to paying someone -- you don't just pay them because of the position they play.
"You pay them based upon how valued they are to your team. And I think, in my personal opinion -- no disrespect to anyone else on that team -- I think Ezekiel Elliott is the most important piece on that team."
This is all echoed in comments made in July by Melvin Gordon, although his holdout with the Los Angeles Charges is wholly different.
The numbers support the overarching stance in a big way, and they're a key reason Elliott felt inclined to hold out for a new contract two seasons prior to the expiration of his current one. He's been more than just a bell cow in North Texas, with his touches and subsequent production carrying a disappointing offensive scheme under the now-ousted Scott Linehan, which is why Elliott isn't so keen on capitulating to anyone considering he can simply be replaced.
The Cowboys themselves have made it clear they have no intentions on trying to do so, but in the same breath refuse to give Elliott and his representation a single proton of added leverage as the two inch closer to what is basically an inevitable deal. In speaking with 105.3FM the Fan on Wednesday, Jones -- who admitted last week that every single thing he says is a negotiation tactic -- continued to beat the drum for just how prepared the Cowboys supposedly are to start the season with their phenom.
"We have to be prepared to play without any given player," Jones said. "... We may very well play without a player that's not coming in on his contract. We'll play and we'll play well."
They'll certainly play, because they sort of have to, but whether they'll play well or not is to-be-determined. Jones wasn't backing down off of his take, though, essentially guaranteeing a playoff appearance and filing his nails in laissez-faire fashion.
"We've got a marathon here," he said. "We want Zeke when we get to the playoffs. We want Zeke when we're in the dog days of this season. ... A fresh Zeke, if we got to the end, would be great."
The problem here, of course, is Jones forgets that a single regular-season win or loss can often make a world of difference come January. One more win can determine home field advantage, and/or a division crown versus a wild card spot, and/or landing a playoff spot altogether. Could the Cowboys win their first two or three games without Elliott in 2019? It's entirely possible, thanks to how their schedule is set up. Even with Barkley in the fold, the Giants have a lot to figure out and the Washington Redskins will likely be without All-Pro left tackle Trent Williams while they work to figure out their situation at quarterback, and possibly without Josh Doctson as a receiving threat -- who they're shopping for trade.
So yes, maybe the Cowboys start 2-0 without Elliott, but are those playoff teams they would've defeated? If they start 3-0 by virtue of defeating the Miami Dolphins as well in Week 3, did they somehow beat anyone at that point that makes them a superpower in the NFC??
The answer is no, and no, and Jones knows it.
That's why even in the shrewdness of his sales pitch, he's still lusting to have Elliott on the field before the fur begins flying in the second half of the season and beyond. Incidentally, that simply reminds Elliott of his value to the Cowboys, because they know full-well while they might beat up on lowly teams early in the season without him; there's no hope for a Super Bowl is he misses too many games.
The deal will get done, period.
"When have I ever not got one done," Jones said in early August, as a reminder to all of his pedigree.
The only question is how much will Elliott be paid and when will two sides finally agree on terms and language. Jones feels the process will speed up rapidly if and once they can speak directly to Elliott, as opposed to his agent, Rocky Arceneaux. In a not-so-subtle remark that implies the team hasn't yet had a chance to have a heart-to-heart with Elliott during the holdout, Jones wants everyone to know he feels all it might take is one man-to-man dialogue with the 24-year-old. The safe bet is Elliott plays in Week 1, but it's not out of the realm of possibility that he'd miss the opener to prove he isn't bluffing.
Jones wants to speak to him directly, though, with the hopes of closing the deal.
"The closer you can get to the payee, the better chance you have of making the deal," he said.
To his point, after months of contention, one phone call from team exec Stephen Jones to defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence led to a five-year, $105 million extension being agreed to in a matter of hours. In the end, it's possible that's all it takes to get the deal done with Elliott as well; ending all of the posturing between the team and Elliott's representation that includes feigning disappointment over a simple "Zeke who?" joke. Obviously, that's also predicated upon what the final offer becomes at that time, but Barkley -- who himself will soon have the same conversation with the Giants -- believes the Cowboys should stop looking at Elliott as simply a running back.
In his eyes, Elliott is much more, and should be paid like it.
The Cowboys and Elliott will eventually be bosom buddies again but, until then, this is all business-as-usual for what might turn out to be a historic NFL contract negotiation. If the team didn't want Elliott around beyond 2020, and if he didn't have any leverage as lazy narratives suggest, there wouldn't have been a first offer made to him; let alone more than one. For now, it's simply a game of chicken, and a spicy one -- at that.
Time will tell which side is Chick-Fil-A, and which side is Popeye's.