All salary figures courtesy of OverTheCap.com unless otherwise specified.
These days, it seems like nothing brings out the reactions like running back news. The old school loves the smashmouth style. Analytics-minded pundits downplay the importance of what was once the game’s glamour position. Dallas Cowboys back Ezekiel Elliott has been a lightning rod for such arguments since the day he was drafted, with analytics types criticizing the use of the #4 overall pick on a running back, while film junkies praised his polish and all-around game. The chatter started up again last week, when Elliott and the Cowboys reached a six-year, $90 MM extension to make him the highest-paid back in football.
Terms of the Deal
The numbers are undeniably impressive. Elliott’s deal has the biggest total ($90 MM), average per year ($15 MM), total guarantees (just north of $50 MM), and full guarantees (a bit above $28 MM). With two years remaining on Zeke’s rookie deal, the extension keeps him in a Cowboys uniform through 2026. It’s a massive deal at a position that hasn’t seen the same kind of wage growth that many others have.
But while there’s plenty to like on Elliott’s end of things, that doesn’t mean the Cowboys didn’t get anything from their side of the deal. Elliott’s 2019 and 2020 cap figures remain team-friendly at $6.3 MM and $10.9 MM, respectively. And while the length of the deal sounds impressive, the Cowboys have few obligations on the back end. Per OverTheCap.com, the 2025 and 2026 seasons contain no guaranteed money, and 2024 has only $2.6 MM. Through five seasons, the effective average is just over $13 MM per year, and the average dips under $13 MM through six or seven seasons. On a per-year basis, the puts him behind Todd Gurley’s deal ($14.4 MM) and in line with Le’Veon Bell ($13.1 MM) and David Johnson ($13 MM).
Naysayers may suggest that the two years remaining on Elliott’s rookie deal shouldn’t be counted as part of the extension, which would make the figures in the above paragraph look worse. But since Elliott was clearly willing to hold out, I don’t think there’s a realistic counter-factual where Dallas gets him to play out his rookie deal without new money.
It’s important to note the rising salary cap as a backdrop to Elliott’s deal. In 2014, the Cowboys signed left tackle Tyron Smith to a massive eight-year, $97.6 MM extension; like Elliott, Smith had two years remaining on his rookie deal. It didn’t take long for inflation to make Smith’s contract look like a steal. He has five years remaining with a total cap charge of about $68.4 MM. The rising cap is a big part of it. In 2014 when Smith signed the deal, the cap was about $133 MM. His 2019 cap hit of $15.5 MM would represent about 11.7% of the cap. But five years later, the salary cap is $188.2 MM, so that hit makes up only 8.3%. If the cap continues to rise at a similar rate—probable, but not definite with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expiring after 2020—Elliott’s cap hits in 2022-2026 are going to look much less imposing than they do now.
Running backs often have shortened careers given the pounding they regularly take at the position. But if Zeke can buck that trend and enjoy a long career, the Cowboys stand to benefit from a deal that looks team-friendly on the back end.
It’s worth noting that Elliott does not have a squeaky-clean off-field record, adding risk to the contract. The NFL suspended him six games in 2017 for domestic violence. He avoided further punishment after bumping a security guard earlier this year, but the Cowboys will want to protect themselves if Elliott gets in trouble again. Reportedly, they did just that, adding clauses that let them void guarantees if the league suspends Zeke in the future.
Do Running Backs Matter?
There is a growing consensus in the analytics community that “running backs don’t matter.” That statement probably shouldn’t be taken literally, but it rests on several pieces that have been empirically established at this point:
- The run game is inefficient compared to the passing game. This is straightforward; NFL teams in 2018 averaged 6.4 net yards per pass attempt (includes lost yardage due to sacks) and 4.4 yards per rushing attempt. Every single team passed more effectively than it ran the ball.
- To the extent the run game does matter, the running back is only one piece; he is not going to go far without quality blockers in front. Johnson led the NFL in touchdowns in 2016, but averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry in 2016. Gurley is coming off two First-Team All-Pro seasons, but he averaged 3.2 yards per carry in 2016 with a brutal supporting cast.
- Moreover, rushing efficiency is heavily determined by number of defenders in the box.
- Some running backs are effective pass-catchers, but in general, throwing to running backs is less efficient than throwing to wide receivers or tight ends.
- Play-action passes are perhaps the best plays in football, but there is no correlation between running frequency or efficiency and play-action passing efficiency.
- Lastly, and most importantly, recent history suggests that running backs are one of the easier positions to replace. The Pittsburgh Steelers had success on the ground without Bell, plugging in James Conner when Bell held out for the season. The Los Angeles Rams grabbed C.J. Anderson off the street and watched him perform comparable to Gurley down the stretch when Gurley’s balky knees acted up. The Denver Broncos used a high pick on Royce Freeman only to see undrafted free agent Phillip Lindsay outperform him. Note that this point is difficult to quantify and remains largely anecdotal.
- There are a bevy of other reasons people will offer as to why the running game matters (controlling the clock, wearing down defenses, setting up the pass, etc.); this Twitter thread from Ben Baldwin debunks them individually.
The running game has its place; no one thinks teams can run pass 100% of the time and still be effective, and certain situations (short yardage, goal line, leading big, against light boxes) dictate that a team should run more. Some of the best football minds still place value on running backs, as evidenced by the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots using first-round picks on RBs in the 2018 draft. But the evidence is clear that teams should run less and pass more, and that running backs do not have as large a role in offensive performance as commonly believed.
OK, But This is Zeke
The statistical case is clear in general, but what about the specifics? Zeke Elliott isn’t your average running back; he’s led the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of his three seasons. He stands with Jim Brown as one of only two backs to average more than 100 yards on the ground per game for his career, with his 101.2 yards per game just nudging ahead of Barry Sanders (99.8) and Terrell Davis (97.5). And he’s no one-trick pony; he added 77 receptions to his ground work in 2018, and is well-regarded for his pass protection.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the analytics community has a less-rosy take on Elliott. Over the past two seasons, Elliott has averaged 4.4 yards per carry, which is pretty close to the league average over that span. His 77 catches went for only 567 yards, a 7.4 yards per catch mark that ranked 127th in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked Zeke just the 30th-best back in the NFL in 2018, factoring in his six fumbles, a surprising lack of broken tackles, and his good fortune in running behind a quality offensive line. His red zone performance was below-average in 2018. PFF’s Kevin Cole estimated Elliott’s value as more consistent with a $6-$8 MM RB than the contract he actually received, nearly double.
The Cowboys got a vision of life without Zeke when the back was suspended for six games in the 2017 season. After averaging 28 points per game through the first eight weeks, they averaged only 18 during Elliott’s absence. Some of those six weeks overlapped with an injury to Smith, however, making it difficult to disaggregate how much was the dropoff at RB, how much at LT, and how much a cumulative impact of both (i.e., missing both hurts more than the sum of missing either individually). The offense continued to struggle in the final two weeks when Elliott returned, scoring a total of 18 points.
Zeke bashers will also point to the 2014 season, when the Cowboys dominated on the ground with Demarco Murray at running back. Murray won first-team All-Pro honors with 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns at 4.7 yards per carry, running behind largely the same offensive line Elliott has. And while the offense as a whole fell off a cliff in 2015 with Murray gone and starting quarterback Tony Romo missing 12 games, they did coax 1,089 yards at 4.6 yards per carry from former top-five bust Darren McFadden. Murray and McFadden combined for only three other 1,000 yards seasons in their NFL careers. It’s fair to ask how much of Elliott’s success could be replicated by an average back working behind the Cowboys OL.
What Does Matter, Really?
On the other hand … I think it’s fair to ask how much impact the loss of any non-quarterback really matters. As of 2016 only six non-QBs could move a betting line even one point in their absence, while virtually every starting quarterback will move the line if he’s out, and the top signal-callers will move the line six or seven points. Running back is heavily-scrutinized in part because it was such a glamour position historically. But it seems to me that many of the criticisms of RB value could be applied to other positions as easily. Skeptics will point out that the 2018 Cowboys offense was struggling until they added Amari Cooper:
But offenses that have elite players at other positions often find they need to add more help, too. The 2015 Atlanta Falcons benefited from an All-Pro season from Julio Jones, who caught 136 passes for 1,871 yards. It didn’t help them much, as they went 8-8 with the league’s 21st-scoring offense. In the offseason, they added center Alex Mack and receivers Mohamed Sanu and Taylor Gabriel, culminating in the NFL’s top-scoring O in 2016.
Throughout the roster we find that one player only makes so much difference. Perennial All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas held down the blind side for some of the worst offenses in football, because the team didn’t have enough talent around him. Even quarterback is not immune from teammate effects. Aaron Rodgers has turned in two MVP seasons, but the Green Bay Packers had barely an average offense in 2015 and 2018 when key teammates left and/or got hurt.
There are some reasons to believe RBs are less valuable than most other positions on the field. They primarily influence the run game, which is less important than passing. Their passing contributions are modest compared to positions with more big play potential. And teams should be wary of big investments at the position given injury and age attrition. But many of the reasons for devaluing running backs apply to most positions on the football field. There’s only so much impact any individual non-quarterback can make given that there are ten other teammates on the field at any time.
Chase Stuart of Football Perspective does the math on this: If offense is 50% the game, and the quarterback is worth conservatively twice as much as every other position on offense, that makes the other 10 offensive players worth about 4%. Generally running backs don’t play more than 50-75% of snaps, so perhaps a top running back is worth 2-3%. That’s consistent with “running backs don’t matter,” but also with the idea that one individual player only makes so much difference.
The Big Picture
Stuart also asks, somewhat pointedly:
Reasonable minds can differ on the answer, and the circumstances aren’t quite the same (Norwell doesn’t make quite that much, and he was an unrestricted free agent, while the Cowboys had exclusive negotiating rights with Zeke), but the point is valid. Elliott isn’t getting paid like a quarterback, a top defensive player, an elite wide receiver, or an offensive tackle. His contract is in line with the top of the market at positions like linebacker, cornerback, and interior offensive line. Maybe that’s still too much, maybe it isn’t, but I have trouble seeing it as a significant overpay. And, as noted above, the deal gives Dallas flexibility on the front and back ends.
At the end of the day, is it a great signing? Probably not. The Cowboys are betting against historical longevity at a violent game’s most brutal position, and doubling down on the run game in a league increasingly controlled through the air. At the same time, if Elliott can stay healthy and productive—and he is just 24—Dallas is in position to capture surplus value on the back end of the deal, and the front end figures to be a bargain. I probably wouldn’t have signed Elliott to that deal, but I wouldn’t have drafted him fourth overall, either. Given the circumstances, the Cowboys could have done worse.