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Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott entering make-or-break 2022 season

Vincent Frank

It was back in 2018 that Ezekiel Elliott was the best all-around running back in the NFL. That season saw him lead the league in rush attempts (304), rushing yards (1,434) and total touches (381) while gaining north of 2,000 total yards.

This led Dallas to signing the former top-four pick out of Ohio State to a record six-year, $90 million contract with north of $50 million in guarantees back in September of 2019.

After all, Elliott was coming off an absolutely brilliant three-year start to his career and seemed to be the face of the franchise with star quarterback Dak Prescott.

Fast forward roughly three years, and things have changed big time for the 27-year-old Elliott and his Boys. He’s coming off two consecutive down seasons, the latter of which coincided with a PCL tear he suffered in Week 4.

For Elliott, this injury was unchartered waters. He had stayed healthy throughout both his college and professional careers. Despite said injury, Elliott was still able to play all 17 games. It caught the eye of embattled head coach Mike McCarthy.

“It’s really a reflection of who he is as a competitor, as a football player. Zeke Elliott is one of our rocks on this team. He is a keystone player.”

McCarthy on Ezekiel Elliott during training camp

Despite the respect Zeke has among the players, coaches and front office, there’s no guarantee he’ll be with the Cowboys beyond this season. A downtick in production, injury concerns, his bloated contract and the presence of Tony Pollard are all going to be factors here.

Related: Ezekiel Elliott and the NFL’s highest-paid players

Ezekiel Elliott could be entering final season with the Cowboys

dallas cowboys running back ezekiel elliott
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This past offseason saw Dallas make a number of moves that could be seen as salary cap related. That included trading star wide receiver Amari Cooper for pennies on the dollar and letting Randy Gregory depart to the Denver Broncos in free agency.

It’s the unintended consequences of owner and “general manager” Jerry Jones pushing back difficult financial decisions throughout the years.

Despite Elliott’s struggles last season, he was never on the chopping block. That’s primarily due to the $30.08 million dead cap hit Dallas would have incurred by releasing/trading the Pro Bowl back.

This won’t be the case following the 2022 season. Dallas could move off Elliott while saving roughly $5 million against the cap. This financial aspect of the situation is not lost on the aging back.

“I think it is a big season, but I think you can’t look that far down the road. I think if I handle my business every day, then I’ll be in a really good situation at the end of the season.”

Ezekiel Elliott on importance of the 2022 season

Right now, Dallas is projected to be $12.58 million over the cap in 2023. It is slated to pay the combination of Dak Prescott, DeMarcus Lawrence, Zack Martin and Tyron Smith $112-plus million against said cap. Of those four, only Smith could be traded/released without the Cowboys taking on a huge dead cap hit.

What does this all mean? The Cowboys remain in salary cap hell. Short of a return to earlier-career form, this could be the end of Elliott’s days in Big D.

Related: Dallas Cowboys schedule and game-by-game predictions

Presence of Tony Pollard and impact on Ezekiel Elliott

dallas cowboys ezekiel elliott, tony pollard
Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

A fourth-round pick out of Memphis in 2019, Pollard performed pretty much up to the level of Elliott this past season. The numbers are eye-opening.

  • Ezekiel Elliott stats (2021): 1,002 rushing yards, 47 receptions, 287 yards, 1,289 total yards, 4.5 per touch, 12 TD
  • Tony Pollard stats (2021): 719 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 337 yards, 1,056 total yards, 6.2 per touch, 2 TD

Pollard is two years younger than his counterpart, will be hitting free agency in 2023 and would come in much cheaper than Elliott’s $16.72 million cap hit for that season.

In short, Pollard’s performance in 2022 could be the death knell to Elliott’s career in Dallas regardless of what the latter does on the field.