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Ezekiel Elliott, Dak Prescott

Cowboys still dealing with Ezekiel Elliott distractions as crucial season looms

The Dallas Cowboys reportedly made some progress in their contract negotiations with star running back Ezekiel Elliott over the weekend, but there are still roadblocks to a deal and a new round of frustrations as Week 1 rapidly approaches. Regardless of what is happening with Elliott, the Cowboys need to focus on their matchup against the New York Giants, but it’s understandable to still be distracted given Zeke’s situation looming over the franchise.

We know all about Jerry Jones’s frustrations regarding Elliott, but the issues go beyond that. Over the past week or so, NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk joined Elliott for workouts in Cabo to prepare him for the upcoming season. While on the surface that sounds great, it’s important to consider whether Faulk was attempting to be an honest actor in all of this. Not only do Elliott and Faulk share the same agent, Rocky Arceneaux, but there are whispers stating Faulk has gone as far as to take the agent exam with Alliance Sports, making him essentially a paid mouthpiece for Elliott’s holdout in addition to a member of the media. This would be problematic if true.

Whether Faulk is a paid mouthpiece for the agency or not, he would routinely work out with Elliott one day and then go do a media blitz and proceed to trash Zeke’s teammates — teammates who were either still seeking new deals of their own or had just gotten new deals from the team. They say don’t count another man’s money — something Faulk himself has said — but it’s hard to argue that Faulk, potentially speaking for Zeke’s agent and Elliott himself, wasn’t doing just that.

Faulk took aim at quarterback Dak Prescott, who, in the last year of his rookie deal, is set to make anywhere from $30-35 million per year on a new deal. Faulk proceeded to run Prescott down, more or less calling him trash and saying he will become a bum as soon as he gets paid. Those were pretty harsh words, but Faulk wasn’t done. He would go on to reference linebacker Jaylon Smith, who just signed a five year, $64 million extension with Dallas and proceeded to minimize his achievements (via 105.3 The Fan):

“If you think about this, and I’m not counting another man’s money, but if you think about what Jaylon Smith did and what he got, compared to what Zeke has done and what he is asking for… it’s not even close. It’s not even close! They drafted a linebacker in the first round last year. If they thought so much of Jaylon, I mean, you draft another linebacker in the first round?”

It’s impossible that Faulk is so ignorant as to why Dallas would draft another linebacker in the first round. Did Leighton Vander Esch’s selection provide the Cowboys with potential insurance in the event that Smith, who was still working his way back to form from a gruesome injury at the time, didn’t recapture his past dominance? Sure. But was that the primary reason they took him with the 19th pick? Not at all. The hope was always to pair the two to create a dynamic, physical tandem capable of covering in space. They don’t play the same position and one does not restrict the other.

Furthermore, yes, Smith has had one dominant season compared to three for Zeke. The difference is that Smith’s contract is nowhere near as expensive as the desired contract we’ve been hearing about for Zeke.

Faulk’s statements are even more ridiculous given Smith is only slated to make $2.5 million this season. That doesn’t cut into Zeke’s potential deal in the slightest. Dallas still has the money necessary to extend Elliott, Prescott, and Amari Cooper — IF Elliott’s expectations aren’t unreasonable. Joey Ickles provided some intriguing insight on Twitter as to why even Dallas, a team that hasn’t devalued the running back position as much as most teams in 2019, might still be reluctant to pay prime dollars for their star running back despite selecting him with the fourth overall pick just three years ago:

While it’s not hard to see that the top-tier running back market has inflated since Dallas drafted Elliott, seeing the actual numbers provides new clarity. There’s a reason Dallas was trying to hold to making Zeke the second-highest-paid running back behind Todd Gurley, even if only marginally so. Earlier this week on 105.3 The Fan, Jerry Jones alluded to the difficulty of having players hold out before their contracts are up (via The Athletic):

“Every time we get a contract in place, that gets us what we can play on and build off of. That’s how you make your plans: by how you put your contracts in place. It shows why it’s problematic when you have a player that you don’t have that changes the contract. Because you’ve made a lot of decisions with contracts in place and are planning on having those resources available based on those contracts.”

So, to what extent do Faulk’s statements create tension in the locker room? At some point, Elliott will report back to the team. When he does, can he and his teammates separate business from personal feelings, especially after the mouthpiece for one specifically called out two major leaders within the locker room?

We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out with Elliott and his teammates, but it’s pretty clear that Dallas — like any team — had a plan in place previously and has been forced to adapt. Should Elliott end up pushing beyond the limit of what the team had planned for, cap casualties could result in the fallout. This is not because Elliott’s cap figure would outpace someone like Dak, but because said figure would have stretched beyond the planned means the team was prepared for.

Why does this matter? Because we’ve seen it before, and pretty recently at that.

The Seattle Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls in 2014 and 2015, and were it not for an ill-advised pass attempt at the goal line, would likely have repeated as Super Bowl champions. But after that second Super Bowl appearance, the time to pay quarterback Russell Wilson had arrived.

Of course, nobody questioned whether or not Wilson, who had been playing on a rookie contract up until that point, was deserving. The problem was that his new high-dollar cap figure limited some of the financial flexibility Seattle had enjoyed while building its championship roster. Because of this, as more key players came up for new contracts, the team was forced to make some tough decisions, thus beginning the steady dismantling of the Legion of Boom.

The Cowboys could be wandering into similar territory now, albeit early if they’re willing to go beyond their own comfort level to re-sign a player like Elliott. Regardless, Dallas is headed into a crucial season.

This is the last season the Cowboys will be able to build a team around its QB on his rookie deal. Until now, Dallas has gotten by with a criminally underpaid Dak Prescott, who will make a little over $2 million this season.

Prescott’s rookie contract has provided the Cowboys the best chance to win another Super Bowl, as it has allowed them significantly more leeway in fleshing out the remainder of their roster over the past three years. After this season, however, Dak’s new deal will kick in. Be it the same $35 million annually that Russell Wilson now enjoys, thereby making him the highest-paid quarterback in the game, or something closer to Carson Wentz’s $32 million a year, the end result is a team with less flexibility moving forward. That goes double if Amari Cooper nets somewhere between $17-20 million.

Dallas had a plan in place to keep its championship window open for the next several years, but between the inflation at the top of the running back market and a premature holdout from their star, Ezekiel Elliott, they’ve since found themselves struggling to maintain the delicate balance between trying to win it all now and not mortgaging their once-promising future. Whether they actually manage to do either of these things remains to be seen, but the the pressure to win will be as intense as it has been this century.