PHOENIX — The party line, in short, is “never say never.”
“I wouldn’t take any impossibility off the table,” Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones said Monday.
“Wish him nothing but the best if it turns out he didn’t return,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said hours later. “But we never rule anything out around here.”
The Cowboys released their 2016 first-round draft pick on March 15. Two weeks later, running back Ezekiel Elliott has yet to land with another team.
NFL evaluators told Yahoo Sports after his release that they fully expected teams to seek the services of Elliott, who powered a physical running style to 876 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2022. Elliott's efficiency has dipped through his seven-year career, his 3.8 yards per carry a drop from his previous career average of 4.5 yards per carry, and even 4.2 as recently in 2021.
Elliott’s role also changed in 2022 as Tony Pollard rode a 5.2-yard-per-carry campaign to 1,007 yards, nine touchdowns and Pro Bowl recognition.
With Pollard set to play 2023 on a $10.1 million franchise tag, the Cowboys did not offer Elliott a pay cut to stay put before releasing him and freeing $10.9 million of the $16.7 million he was scheduled to count against their cap.
“The last thing we want to do is do anything that would be insulting to a player to a great player, like Zeke, who was one of the best players to ever put on a Cowboys uniform,” Stephen Jones said. “There are sensitivities when you get into making offers.”
Elliott’s market-dictated value is undoubtedly now far below the $15-million-per-year contract the Cowboys gave him in 2018. The positional market dipped this year, with productive backs including Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams and David Montgomery signing deals averaging between $4 and $6 million.
The Cowboys believed facing that reality on less personal terms, via offers from another club, would allow Elliott to acclimate to his new worth.
“Sometimes the best thing is to let them get a feel for what the market is,” Stephen Jones said, comparing Elliott’s release to past releases of Cowboys Hall of Famers Emmitt Smith and DeMarcus Ware. “When you’re talking about great players — and that’s what makes them great: They think a lot, not in a selfish way, but they perceive themselves as a great player and they are. It just becomes how do you make the business work. It always boils down to that unfortunately.
“There was no joy when Emmitt went to Arizona. There was no joy when DeMarcus went to Denver. But you look up and there’s a lot of good will still between DeMarcus and the Cowboys, you see him around the building all the time. Emmitt Smith, you see around the building all the time.
“I think for the most part we’ve worked through these tough situations in a good way and hopefully we’re doing it in spades with Zeke because there’s nothing but love and respect for Zeke Elliott.”
On the field, head coach Mike McCarthy is focused on determining the best distribution of touches that last year went to Elliott. Pollard will likely receive a heavier load than his 193 rushes to Elliott's 231 rushes in 2022. The Cowboys could draft a running back as early as the 26th overall pick. They signed veteran Ronald Jones as insurance as well.
“I think at the end of the day in a perfect world, you’d find a big, physical back that can complement Tony,” Stephen Jones said.
That back’s skillset may resemble what the Cowboys have long employed from Elliott. But more likely than not, even as the Cowboys insist Elliott’s return is plausible, they will fill that void with a younger, fresher and cheaper player.
The Cowboys giving new cornerback Stephon Gillmore Elliott’s “21” number this week seemed just the latest indication.
“Zeke gave us everything he had and more,” Jerry Jones said, “and we gave him everything we had.”