Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next? ‘Pretty ruthless’ market awaits after Cowboys’ 3-time Pro Bowler exit

As the NFL league year came to a close on Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys made a decision that was almost as surprising as it was logical: to release running back Ezekiel Elliott.

The three-time Pro Bowler who Dallas selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft had since rushed for 8,262 yards and 68 touchdowns, regularly finding weak spots in both defenses and the heart of team owner Jerry Jones .

Last season, Elliott contributed 876 yards and 12 touchdowns in a 12-5 campaign.

But a contract that stood in stark contrast to the current NFL landscape, coupled with the unleashing of a more explosive and younger teammate, prompted the Cowboys to move on.

“We mutually agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone is for them to experience free will, and we can increase our flexibility and options,” Jones said in a statement. “Zeke’s impact and influence is etched into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way.”

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As the Cowboys and Elliott look to independent futures for the first time in seven years, Dallas’ immediate prospects look the brighter of the two. Tony Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns last year while averaging 5.2 yards per carry. After recovering from a postseason broken leg, expect Pollard to guide a Cowboys running game that head coach Mike McCarthy wants to highlight. Add either undrafted 2022 free agent Malik Davis or a draft pick to the job, and the Cowboys will advance with $10.9 million more salary cap space after June 1.

But Elliot?

Its market is further complicated by recent offensive developments than its (perhaps not entirely unrelated) decline in production and effectiveness.

Yahoo Sports consulted talent evaluators across the NFL to learn more.

The reality that awaits Ezekiel Elliott

Four seasons have passed since Elliott’s 40-day contract forced Jones to award his running back a six-year deal worth $90 million, including $50 million in guarantees. NFL contracts are far more complex than just average annual value — and yet Elliott’s $15 million a year mark was wild then and may be wilder now.

Only San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who accepted his current award with the Carolina Panthers in 2020, has eclipsed the mark since. McCaffrey and his agent Joel Segal then argued that the player “speaks three languages” with an elite ability to run, catch passes and block. The receiving threat posed by McCaffrey was on full display last season when he caught 85 passes for 741 receiving yards and five touchdowns… a top his 1,139 yards and eight rushing scores. His compensation reflects the value of a hybrid running back in a league that pays receivers far more.

After McCaffrey, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is the only other running back to earn more than $12.6 million a year. Kamara has contributed 43% of his yardage and 31% of his scoring in the passing game compared to Elliott, whose receiving resume is just 22% of his yardage and 15% of his scoring. It matters to NFL teams and their contract writers.

Talent evaluators from three different organizations agreed on the main premises: pass-heavy concepts continue to devalue running talent. Running back injuries on second contracts — think Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Derrick Henry, Elliott and even McCaffrey of the Tennessee Titans — heighten concerns about the durability of the position.

“Being the first to run is almost frowned upon now,” a professional scout told Yahoo Sports.

“There are only a handful or two of true RB1s left in the league,” added another.

An AFC executive agreed that “it has become a two-man job instead of having one back dominating”.

The conclusion of this executive?

“I don’t think RBs as a position will get much money anymore.”

For Elliott, time won’t heal everything

Two temporal factors are now hurting Elliott: the years that have passed since he received a value appraisal that no longer passes the eye test, and the days that have passed in the free agency cycle of 2023 (and the cycles of legal and illegal tampering) in which three major running back contracts were awarded.

After Miles Sanders rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers signed him to a four-year, $25 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, per Spotrac. Jamaal Williams’ 1,066 yards and league-high 17 touchdowns earned him a three-year contract worth $12 million, with $8 million guaranteed to New Orleans. Meanwhile, the Lions, who let Williams walk, handed ex-Chicago Bears David Montgomery a three-year, $18 million deal, with $11 million guaranteed after a season of 801 yards and five touchdowns. .

Ezekiel Elliott hits the open market for the first time in his NFL career.  (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

Ezekiel Elliott hits the open market for the first time in his NFL career. (Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images)

To state the obvious, that means three teams that needed and were willing to pay something for a running back this spring no longer meet any of the criteria.

Additionally, three players whose production slots are close to Elliott’s total production are averaging between $4 million and $6.25 million per year, with no meaningful guarantees after two years. Elliott’s efficiency hasn’t matched each of those three players, with the Cowboys’ bellcow averaging 3.8 yards per carry in 2022, compared to 4.0 for Montgomery, 4.1 for Williams and 4.9 for Sanders.

Football Outsiders further rates the effectiveness of ball carriers with a DVOA rating considering game scenarios and opponents. In the 2022 season, Sanders placed sixth, Montgomery 22nd, Elliott 24th and Williams 26th.

“He’s always valuable in short-range and goal-line situations,” said one of the pro scouts, who also praised Elliott’s pass protection strength. “Zeke still has a lot of potential to remain a dominant first and second back. He has a unique size and strength combined with vision and good feet behind the [line of scrimmage] to stress the first level defenses. I can see him going to a team that wants to be a first offense and use his skills to set up effective first and second down blocks and limit third and long situations.

“But it will be interesting to see what kind of contract he gets if that’s the role he’s given.”

Jones’ sentimentality will not write off Elliott’s next contract.

Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next season?

Coaches and executives predicting Elliott’s landing spots at Yahoo Sports included the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals among teams that would benefit from his services. If the Los Angeles Chargers complete a trade for running back Austin Ekeler (they reportedly agreed to his request to seek one), Elliott could consider reuniting with longtime coordinator and teammate Kellen Moore, although the poor fit and the philosophy trumps personal familiarity. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just released Fournette and hired longtime Elliott coach Skip Peete, are perhaps even better suited.

Each appraiser thought Elliott would be prosecuted for some sort of a role, because even though “the RB market is pretty cutthroat, especially this free agency,” said one of the scouts, “he’s still ‘young enough’ with a production history to land an opportunity/a role somewhere.

“And I don’t think anyone can deny his tenacity.”

As for how much Elliott could earn, an AFC executive estimated that Elliott could receive a $5 million offer with incentives.

Even this executive wondered if he would approve such an agreement.

“Thought teams pay primarily for the name,” the exec said. “I think the free market will be a lesson in humility for him.”

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