The comments may have been as innocuous as they sounded. The Cowboys could use one of their precious and few draft picks Friday or Saturday to seek a backup running back to Ezekiel Elliott for the 2019 season.
That’s mostly what Stephen Jones was saying at the club’s news conference this past week. But when you step back and look at the big picture, at what’s going on in the NFL and listen to the words of Jerry Jones that day about allocating money, you wonder exactly how many more years Zeke has to wear the star on his helmet.
I think the answer is more than two. It’s almost certainly not more than four.
If you think time moves fast, try being an NFL running back these days. They are seen as the most expendable of commodities despite their importance on game day, and so if you see the Cowboys grabbing a running back Friday night in either the second or third round, the player might be more than someone to carry the ball in Oxnard.
Everything Zeke does on the field works in his favor for keeping him around. He has led the league in rushing twice and, even with being suspended for six games in 2018, is the overall leading rusher the last three seasons. He was the only back to carry the ball 300 times in 2018. He improved as a pass catcher and was used extensively in that capacity last season.
All those things speak to Zeke’s significance here. But so many things work against him on the outside, it’s all going to depend on where the Joneses are directing their attention.
For starters, Zeke led the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016. Chicago rookie Jordan Howard, taken four rounds after Zeke, finished second. In 2017 when the Zeke suspension kept him from a rushing title, Kansas City rookie Kareem Hunt (a third-round pick) won it. Last year when Zeke led the league in rushing once more, Giants rookie Saquon Barkley finished second. Cleveland’s second-round pick, Nick Chubb, and Denver’s undrafted rookie Phillip Lindsay also finished in the top 10.
The point: It may take receivers time to develop into All-Pros in the NFL, but rookie backs hit the ground running.
Now take the cases of Zeke’s contemporaries, Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley. Bell, as you know, sat out last season after being franchised a second time by Pittsburgh. He is now a New York Jet. The Steelers missed the playoffs last season, but it would be hard to conclude it was solely because of Bell’s absence. Like Dallas, Pittsburgh maintains a powerful run-blocking line. Without Bell, James Conner and Jaylen Samuels (third- and fifth-round picks respectively) ran for 1,229 yards and a 4.5 average. That was one year after Bell’s numbers were 1,291 and 4.0.
As for Gurley, who got a second contract from the Rams last summer, he helped LA get to a Super Bowl but a late-season injury slowed him. His only impactful playoff game came against the Cowboys. It has been reported that Gurley has developed arthritis in his surgically repaired left knee. What that means for him as a dependable lead back in this league is completely unknown.
What’s known is that Gurley’s contract carries cap figures of $17.25 million and $13.2 million in 2020 and 2021 before the Rams can really even think about getting out of his deal.
As for Zeke, he is under contract with a cap hit of $7.9 million this season, and Stephen Jones said the club would soon be picking up his fifth-year option, which carries a $9.1 million cap figure in 2020.
“We all know if Zeke is healthy, there’s not a lot of touches for the other guy,” Stephen Jones said. “Zeke, barring an incident, obviously is a guy who’s dependable and we can count on him.”
But for how long? If he leads the league in carries the next two seasons, how much will Zeke have left? The answer might be a lot. But if it’s less than he brought into the league, how much sense does it make to start paying him the type of money Gurley is getting?
Jerry Jones talked about negotiations at the end of the news conference and explained his philosophy in this manner. “It’s never really about the money. You’re going to spend the money in this system. It’s about how you allocate and do you allocate any for that opportunity. That’s just saving it, not for a rainy day but for a brilliantly sunny day that you might get a chance to do something special,” Jones said.
We already know that Zeke qualifies as one of the league’s special players. But for how long and at what price? We could start to learn a little about the Cowboys’ thinking on that Friday night.
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