Science Lab: Full scope of Elliott, Cowboys reunion

April 30, 2024


Welcome to “The Science Lab”, a place where football facts and in-depth analysis always triumph over feelings.

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FRISCO, Texas — Holy renewed vows, Batman. Following their first season apart in the last eight years, Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys found their way back to each other on a one-year deal that could see him crowned homecoming king in 2024, in a move that pours cement on an unstable foundation in the running backs room.

The re-signing comes only 49 days after Tony Pollard, Elliott’s former Robin (and, eventually, Nightwing), returned home to Tennessee on a multi-year deal with the Titans, two weeks after adding Royce Freeman and roughly 48 hours after the Cowboys decided to walk away from the 2024 NFL Draft without selecting a running back.

So, where do they stand at the moment?

The Utility Belt

They’d eventually sign one in undrafted free agency, namely Nathaniel Peat out of Missouri, rounding out their current (key word) stable of backs, as follows:

  • Ezekiel Elliott
  • Rico Dowdle
  • Hunter Luepke
  • Malik Davis
  • Deuce Vaughn
  • Royce Freeman
  • Snoop Conner
  • Nathanial Peat (R)

The picture had long been painted throughout the past several weeks, with broad strokes and pastel watercolors, that Elliott would not only operate as the Cowboys’ safety net as they navigated the draft, but that his presence in the background would also steer their draft day moves.

And so it did, along with the lack of a fourth-round pick, though they did acquire an additional third-rounder (73rd-overall) in a trade with the Detroit Lions that eventually became former Kansas State mauler Cooper Beebe.

One example of Elliott’s silent influence came in the form of former Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau, who got the nod as the team’s 87th-overall pick over running backs that had also earned a coveted Official 30 visit in Dallas — e.g., Jaylen Wright, Bucky Irving and, Braelen Allen.

A run at the position (pun?) and more in the aforementioned fourth-round, seven running backs in all being selected in that round alone, all but wiped out any hope the Cowboys had of securing an impact back for the future in this year’s draft; and so they’ll revisit that next April.

For now, it’s Elliott swooping in for the third installment of Dallas’ version of The Dark Knight trilogy, this being his third contract with the club and, speaking of contracts, allow me a moment to clarify something, if you would.

A League of Shadows

Elliott is not being paid twice in 2024 by the Cowboys.

Is there dead money on this year’s salary cap of $6 million that stems from Elliott’s second contract? The answer is yes. Is that money that is still due to be paid out of this year’s salary cap, though?

I’ll say it in both English and Spanish: no.

Dead money is exactly that, folks. It’s dead. And on a contract that has already expired or been terminated — it’s super dead. It’s not Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” waiting to climb out of the grave and become a nuisance today or any day going forward, and understanding this is key.

The dead money hit of $6 million was created by money that’s already been paid out to the player, such as a signing bonus that is paid upfront but allowed by the NFL to be prorated (spread out) over the duration of the existing contract to lessen the upfront cap penalty.

Example: If a player is paid, in cash, a signing bonus of $30 million on a five-year deal, the dead money for each of the five years is … $6 million. That dead money doesn’t disappear in Year 5 if the player is released in Year 3 of the contract, either.

Why? Because it’s already been paid, in a lump sum upfront, and there are no takesies backsies.

The cash is already spent on Elliott’s previous contract.

Already … spent.

This is why the $6 million penalty for the 2024 season had no impact on what the Cowboys chose to do with Elliott, because they’re not paying him twice this year. They’re only paying him once on a deal with only $2 million guaranteed — only $800,000 above veteran minimum salary, no less — a reasonable deal for what they’re expecting him to be when they kick off the season in Week 1.

The Riddler

And what might that be, pray tell?

Well, it’s to reinstall what was lost when the Cowboys parted ways with Elliott following the 2022 season in a move that was solely for cap reasons, and not a downturn in performance. At the time, they felt it more prudent to divorce Elliott for cap space and to then place a franchise tag on Pollard and, in the process, removed The Sledgehammer from the toolbox.

The tandem of Pollard and Dowdle was productive, but it lacked the punch needed in short yardage situations, time and again (e.g., versus the Miami Dolphins) and head coach Mike McCarthy went on to describe the rushing attack as subpar when asked about it following the embarrassing conclusion to the season.

Luepke made strides on the back end of his rookie campaign but also had a gaffe (goal line fumble versus the Dolphins) that caused McCarthy to pull back on his reins over the next several games.

Vaughn was clearly never viewed as a short-yardage option and Malik Davis wasn’t awarded a single offensive carry last season, likely due to his build and skill set being similar to that of Pollard and Dowdle, who were both already twinning, for the most part.

Adding Conner, Freeman and Peat will add competition to the pack, undoubtedly, but the only sure thing in all of this is Elliott — even when factoring in the impressive career-best season from Dowdle when, contextually, you consider the rampant durability Elliott also possesses.

He’s not only proven, and then some, but he rarely misses time at the most brutal position in all of football.

Hot Line

But let’s not put the entirety of the struggles in the run game on Pollard and Dowdle, the two lead backs in 2023, because a lot of it was also attributable to the offensive line woes. A carousel of injuries cost Tyron Smith, Tyler Smith and even Zack Martin some games, and Terence Steele was still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered in 2022.

Kudos to upstarts like T.J. Bass and Brock Hoffman for being able to jump into the fire and not suffer any burns, but lack of overall chemistry on the offensive line due to a merry-go-round of personnel didn’t do Pollard and Dowdle any favors.

But that’s not the line Elliott and Dowdle will run behind in 2024.

It’s presumably this one:

  • LT – Tyler Guyton (R)
  • LG – Tyler Smith
  • C – Cooper Beebe (R)
  • RG – Zack Martin
  • RT – Terence Steele

“My my my,” said Johnny Gill.

Take a look at my scouting reports on both Guyton and Beebe to get a detailed view of what each is bringing to the table but, be not mistaken, they’re both maulers who excel at run blocking — making their selections completely uncoincidental. There’s also rookie seventh-round pick Nathan Thomas, the Cowboys tripling down at offensive line in this year’s draft, the former Louisiana offensive lineman adding plenty of nasty to the mix as well.

You can not rightfully try to project the impact of Elliott’s return to Dallas without also factoring in a fully rebuilt offensive front, because the two things will work hand-in-hand.

The Dark Knight Rises

Is Elliott still in prime form that won him two rushing titles and several franchise records? No, but he also doesn’t have to be in this year’s Cowboys’ construct, one that is a far cry from when he got the nod as the fourth-overall pick in 2016.

All he needs to do is mentor/lead the unproven group behind him — as he long did for Pollard and Dowdle — to continue being one of the best pass-pro running backs in the entire league and to do the heavy lifting in short yardage and goal-to-go situations.

Given what he was able to do for the Patriots in only five starts last season, there can be little doubt the former All-Pro still has that much in his tank to be given.And if the offensive line finds its own prime form quickly, his job becomes that much easier.

As does the fact quarterback Dak Prescott is now an All-Pro and MVP runner-up, while wide receiver CeeDee Lamb continues to add not only to his All-Pro nods, but also to his number of franchise and league records broken.

Toss in explosive talent like Brandin Cooks and Jake Ferguson, and you’re starting to see the entire picture now.

Should the Cowboys have also selected a running back in this year’s draft for both now and for later? My answer is a resounding yes, but they decided to instead add three new bodies to the O-line to help whoever might take handoffs behind it.

Elliott may no longer be the young Bruce Wayne, but an older version of Batman was still kicking plenty of ass … but he also had the Justice League helping him win.