Early in the Ezekiel Elliott contract negotiations, Stephen Jones swore that whatever the team agreed to with its 24-year-old star running back, it wouldn’t be a record. “We’re damn sure not going to be a market-setter,” Jones said, before explaining, a little cryptically and a little ironically, that his stance was “because of all the things that go with being a Dallas Cowboy.” Well, Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy and will be for a few years to come. And he’s a market-setter.
On Wednesday morning Elliott and the Cowboys agreed to a six-year, $90 million contract extension with $50 million in guarantees, and he’ll be in uniform and ready to go for Dallas’s Week 1 home game vs. the Giants. That $15 million APY, and, much more relevant, that $50 million guaranteed are both records for running backs, breaking the marks set by the Rams’ Todd Gurley last year. With the caveat that big NFL contracts almost never end up playing out to completion, it still feels safe to say that, in a league that has increasingly devalued individual running backs in recent years, the Cowboys bucked the trend—and Elliott’s holdout paid off.
Zeke still has two more years of his rookie deal left to go before the extension kicks in, so this deal seems likely to keep him a Cowboy well into his prime, if not through it. But how long exactly?
There’s no way of knowing without seeing the details of the contract, specifically how the guarantees are structured and whether they’re full or for injury only. This is only an educated guess, but it seems logical that most or all of the guarantees will be in the front half of the deal. If that’s the case, this would be functionally a three-year extension, with three one-year team options on the end of it. That’s a positive for the Cowboys, and length is likely what Elliott gave up in return for big money up front. What it would mean is that, after the two rookie-deal years and the three guaranteed-money seasons, which would run through Elliott’s age-28 season, Dallas could determine each year whether to bring him back, or to cut him loose at no penalty if they decide he’s not a top-tier back anymore.
Even with those effective option years, this is a big commitment to Elliott in an age of disposable RBs. But he’s done nothing in his young career but show he’s worth building an offense around, and with the Cowboys having locked up the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence, La’el Collins, and Jaylon Smith this offseason—with a Dak Prescott deal not far off—their core in is place for what they hope is a multi-year Super Bowl window. In that framework, Elliott was worth it to the Cowboys, and what’s more, he knew his worth. That’s why he got to skip training camp and spend the last month in Cabo—a win even without the contract—and that’s why he’s a market-setter.