Tight against the salary cap, the Cowboys are shedding contracts this offseason. They’ve already cut Greg Zuerlein and Blake Jarwin, and bigger moves are coming, with Amari Cooper and La'el Collins among the players under contract who are likely on the way out, and Randy Gregory, Michael Gallup, Connor Williams, Leighton Vander Esch and Jayron Kearse among the free agents the Cowboys may not be able to afford to keep.
One player who’s not going anywhere is running back Ezekiel Elliott. That’s because his contract makes it impossible: His salary is guaranteed for this year, and his $18.2 million cap hit would turn into a $30.1 million dead cap if he were cut.
But that $18.2 million cap hit is a drain on the Cowboys. It’s by far the highest cap hit for any running back in the NFL this season. As long as there’s a salary cap, every dollar spent on one player is a dollar that can’t be spent on other players, and the Cowboys are spending $18.2 million on a player who plays a position that has largely been devalued across the NFL.
The reason running backs have been devalued is easy to see by looking only at the Cowboys, who have shown that you can replace an expensive running back with a cheap one without losing much of anything. The Cowboys have a cheap running back in Tony Pollard, whose cap hit this year is $1.1 million. Pollard averaged 5.5 yards per carry while Elliott averaged 4.2 last season. Pollard averaged 8.6 yards per catch while Elliott averaged 6.1 last season. Pollard picked up a first down on 27 percent of his carries while Elliott picked up a first down on 23 percent of his carries last season.
But with Elliott’s guaranteed salary, moving on from him and turning to Pollard isn’t possible. The Cowboys are stuck with Elliott’s contract, and cuts will have to come at other positions.