NFL: Miami Dolphins at New England Patriots

FRISCO, Texas --  Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones made running back Ezekiel Elliott one of the faces of his team after selecting him fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft. Elliott produced three Pro Bowl seasons in his first four years, including leading the NFL in rushing yards in two of those seasons, 2016 (his rookie year) and 2018. However, his rushing-yards-per-game total declined every year of his career and with the team facing a $16.7 million cap charge for one of the earlier years of his six-year, $90 million contract extension, Jones released one of his most popular players.

His 8,262 rushing yards and 68 rushing touchdowns both rank as the third-most in Cowboys history trailing only a couple Pro Football Hall of Famers in Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett. On Sunday, Elliott will return to AT&T Stadium where he played his home games for seven seasons from 2016-2022 as a member of the New England Patriots

"I mean, I don't have that much time to be too emotional," Elliott said on a conference call with media in Dallas on Wednesday. "I've got to prepare for a game. I've got to go out and put my best foot forward. I mean, there are emotions. I may do a good job of kind of hiding them but there will be some emotions."

Elliott was released over the phone by Jones on March 15 following a season in which he ran for a career-low 876 rushing yards and averaged an NFL-worst, among players with at least 200 touches, 3.9 yards per scrimmage touch. He said there was a "minimum" conversation about remaining with the Cowboys but on a smaller contract. Just under 10 days prior to his release, Elliott's former understudy Tony Pollard, was franchise-tagged for $10.09 million. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 264 rushing yards on a league-high 62 carries in 2023. His 122 yards on the ground in the team's 28-16 loss at the Arizona Cardinals in Week 3 were the third-most in a game in his five-year career. 

A return as Pollard's backup didn't end up working out, and he signed with the Patriots a few weeks into training camp. Elliott totaled a season-high 80 rushing yards on 16 carries in a 15-10 Week 3 win at the New York Jets. He totaled just 42 yards on 12 carries in the first two weeks of the season. His 2023 production in total amounts to 122 rushing yards on 28 carries and six receptions for 21 yards. 

"I think I have plenty left in the tank," Elliott said. "I still think I'm a very good back."

As for how he will be received Sunday in Arlington, Elliott is unsure. He hasn't connected with his old Cowboys pals this week. Elliott revealed he accidentally texted Dallas safety Jayron Kearse when intending to message fellow Ohio State alum and Baltimore Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins

"I don't know what I'm necessarily expecting," Elliott said. "It's definitely going to be weird, just being in a different uniform, being in the visitor's locker room. But I think it'll just be a good experience kind of seeing the fans again."  

The answer for how he will be greeted by his former coaches and teammates is simple: well.

"He is always going to be loved here," Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. "The love that he has, still today, in this locker room is tremendous. In our time together, he was clearly one of the most popular players. He is a tremendous teammate. He still is. His name usually comes up once a week. Great guy."

Pollard can't wait to see his former mentor.

"It's going to be like a homecoming for him," Pollard said Wednesday. "That's my brother at the end of the day, outside of football and outside of everything. We still communicate and keep in touch. It's going to be emotional, but we're going out there to handle business. He's had a great influence on me playing this game, just watching him, just watching how he does things, how he approaches things, his preparation throughout the week, his film study and things like that. Just trying to pick his brain, growing with him over time."

He also aims to have statistical bragging rights against Elliott in their first head-to-head matchup. Pollard said much of their communication these days involves sending each other memes. 

"Oh, 100%," Pollard said when asked how much he wants to have the better statistical outing. 

Cowboys All-Pro linebacker Micah Parsons, who can get himself fired up about almost any topic from his Hall of Fame dreams to Travis Kelce's and Taylor Swift's budding relationship, said Wednesday that he isn't excited to tackle Elliott in a game for the first time.

"No excitement, he's just my dog," Parsons said. "I know it's all love, and I know we're just going out there to compete. I feel like Zeke is coming for me because he used to tell [in practice in the past] 'you're lucky I'm not out there, I would really get you.' If there ever is matchup [between me and him], I'm looking forward to it. We missed his presence and the joy he brings to the locker room. It's going to be fun going against him."