The Ezekiel Elliott era in Dallas is over, as the Cowboys are set to release their long-time franchise back and No. 3 leading all-time rusher Wednesday, potentially clearing the way for Tony Pollard to finally be a true lead back.
The decision to release Elliott, first reported by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, comes as the team was unable to come to an agreement on a reworked contract with Elliott. Elliott was set for a $16.7 million cap hit, and this move will open up at least $4.9 million for their 2023 cap – though they could open up even more cap space for this season if they designate Elliott as a post-June 1 cut, which would push some of the cap hit to future seasons.
Whatever they decide to do, it's clear Elliott's time with the team is over. He led the league in rushing yards in two of his first three seasons, and he led the league in rushing yards per game in the other season. Things haven't been quite as good since, and over the past few seasons, Pollard has clearly surpassed him as the team's better running back. Pollard was brought back on the franchise tag before free agency started, leaving the Cowboys with $27.7 million devoted to the RB position – more than $8 million more than any other team.
They'll move back to the pack when Elliott is off the cap, though I don't expect the Cowboys to just go into next season with Pollard and Malik Davis as their running backs. This is a team that believes, from the owner on down, that their identity is built around running the ball, and Pollard's 193 carries last season were a career-high.
So, while the initial reaction to this news is something like, "TONY POLLARD TO THE MOON," let's get through the NFL Draft before we push Pollard up to the No. 2 RB on our rankings lists. Because this is still a Jerry Jones-led team, and there is still a highly ranked running back prospect with a first-round grade who played his college games in Texas who could come in and screw things up for Pollard.
I'm referring, of course, to Bijan Robinson, CBSSports.com's No. 7 overall player in the upcoming draft. Robinson isn't likely to go inside of the top-10, but he seems like a pretty safe bet to go in the first round, with Dallas waiting at No. 26 to potentially pounce, if he's there. There's no guarantee he ends up there, of course, but the natural inclination is to link those two after the Cowboys cut their last first-round running back.
Speaking of Robinson, Dan Schneier wrote up an in-depth draft profile on Robinson that included film takeaways, Fantasy fits, Dynasty outlook, advance stats and more.
That doesn't mean Pollard's value is going to collapse, or anything. They're paying him a bunch of money on the franchise tag, after all, and he's proven how valuable he is to this offense. I just think the Cowboys are probably still going to view him as a committee back, whether that comes via the draft or another free agent signing.
Pollard should still be drafted as a No. 1 RB in 2023. Before free agency, I ranked him as the No. 8 RB, and after this, I'd probably only move him up to No. 7 or so. The future for Derrick Henry and Austin Ekeler remains uncertain, so Pollard could move up a few spots, but I think it's unlikely he enters the elite tier with Christian McCaffrey and Jonathan Taylor unless the Cowboys truly commit to him as a clear No. 1 back. We likely won't know on that front until sometime in the summer.
As for Elliott, I'd bet he lands somewhere with a decent enough role. The question is how much he has left at this point. He's been slowed by a variety of nagging lower-body injuries over the past few seasons, and he's clearly no longer the dominant force he was early in his career. Elliott's -0.26 yards over expected per attempt last season was the sixth-lowest among qualifiers last season; Pollard, for comparison's sake, had the third-best RYOE/ATT last season at 1.26 despite facing eight-man boxes more often than Elliott did.
Elliott is still a sturdy blocker and a powerful short-yardage runner, and is probably best used as part of a committee. He won't be breaking many big runs, but if you need someone you can trust on third down and in short-yardage areas, he still has some appeal. We just have to hope he doesn't land somewhere like Kansas City who already has a young back we like better for that role. Miami would seemingly be an interesting fit, and I could see Buffalo as a possible landing spot to pair with the more explosive James Cook.
Either way, Elliott's time as a must-start Fantasy running back is almost certainly done. While it's possible that he turns the clock back, there's no reason to bet on it at this point. If he lands in the right spot, he can be an intermittently useful, touchdown-dependent RB3, with a Jamaal Williams-in-2022 outcome probably the absolute best-case scenario you could hope for. It's not a profile anyone should really be interested in chasing at this point.