Dallas Cowboys star Ezekiel Elliott is a good running back.
But good running backs are a dime a dozen in the NFL, and through the endless supply provided to the pro ranks by the overlords known as the NCAA, the position is never lacking in talent.
The position is so saturated with talent, in fact, it has led many analytics fans to suggest one should never, ever invest in one lead running back but rather utilize a shared backfield through a team of easily replaceable guys. A "running back by committee" approach.
The saturation of talent at the position has killed the market because why pay a star running back $15 million per year when you can pay $1.5 Million for 75 percent of the production. This has led to many running backs being paid relative pennies, allowing the team flexibility to invest heavily in other important positions like quarterback, offensive tackle, cornerback, etc.
The Dallas Cowboys, however, do not have this luxury. They have invested $90 million on what appears to be a declining running back, and now on top of that, pressing concern they also appear to have a declining offensive line, a porous defense and are cap-tied due to what appears to be multiple bad long-term contracts.
One of which appears to be Ezekiel Elliot's. A great running back can carry a franchise on his back to victory through controlling the clock (helping the defense), consistently moving the chains and opening up the passing game through play-action. Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans is an example of this.
Great running backs are worth the investment, as their brilliance offsets the risk. The stats indicate the Cowboys do not currently possess an elite running back. Ezekiel Elliot is playing like a good running back -- he's currently on pace to rush for around 1,040 yards this season -- but he's being paid like a great one. He is supposed to be the gloss that covers up all the cracks, but he is failing in this role and that should be pretty worrying for many Cowboys fans as Ezekiel Elliott is paid franchise money to lead this team to Super Bowls; not to be in pole position for the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft.
Despite what many will claim, the O-line injuries are only partly to blame for Ezekiel Elliott's decline.
NFL: We can't blame the O-line (fully) for Ezekiel Elliott's struggles
The Cowboys offensive line (barring this year) has consistently been, at worst, above-average for Ezekiel Elliott's entire tenure with the team. But despite this consistent great play from the line, Zeke’s numbers have been nose-diving since his rookie year.
Zeke’s longest run in the past 3 seasons went for 38 yards. He simply hasn’t shown the burst we associated with him at Ohio State or in his rookie year. This lack of burst limits his ability to make explosive runs, which leads to defenses not having to stack the box. With defenses not having to worry about being gashed by deep runs, they can focus on the Cowboys' real explosive threat -- their stacked wide receiver group.
Ezekiel Elliott needs to generate more explosive plays (plays that go 20 yards or more) so as to take defensive attention from the passing game and giving those skilled receivers more space to work with.
Derrick Henry and Christian McCaffery (Carolina Panthers) consistently generate such plays, which rubs off on their teammates. Receivers like A.J. Brown of the Titans and DJ Moore of the Panthers are able to make explosive plays themselves due to their franchise running backs opening up the field for them.
NFL: An uncertain future for Ezekiel Elliott
Despite great grades from both Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders last season indicating the Cowboys' line can still be considered very good, Ezekiel Elliot posted a career-low in yards per game.
While this stat is affected by the fact that the Cowboys trailed in many games, calling for them to throw instead of run the ball, a look at the tape will show the Cowboys always felt too comfortable going away from Ezekiel Elliott, even in bad games.
By comparison, the Titans consistently try to get Derrick Henry going. If he gets going, the entire offense runs way smoother. Where is this faith with Ezekiel Elliott?
Too many Cowboys games ended with them desperately hoping QB Dak Prescott saved them from themselves, while Ezekiel Elliott was made to watch like just another piece. “Just pieces” don’t earn $90 million contracts.
Zeke was in decline with a great O-line, but that great O-line is falling apart. Travis Frederick, their All-Pro caliber center, retired this offseason. All-Pro caliber left tackle Tyron Smith is often injured (he's out for this season with a buck injury). All-Pro caliber guard Zack Martin is becoming the next oft-injured star lineman on the Cowboys. Pro Bowl right tackle La'el Collins (hip) has already been ruled out for the rest of this season. Their worst starter, Connor Williams, is out there being manhandled week in and week out without his other star teammates to cover for him.
This may be the Cowboys' O-line future for a while now, unless Jerry Jones magically hits on three straight All-Pro linemen in the draft again.
It's early, but the franchise running back has failed to live up to the billing so far and doesn't seem to be the type of back who overcomes bad O-line play. With this uncertain future and this undeniable fact what is the next move?
NFL: What should the Cowboys do with Ezekiel Elliott?
Dallas is a passing team now. They shouldn’t try to run from it, but rather embrace it.
Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes has never really had an elite run game but still leads one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses. The Cowboys have three potential thousand-yard receivers and are marching with authority towards a top-five draft pick. It's time to make a decision.
Ezekiel Elliot is too expensive to cut or trade, but he isn’t the asset. The asset of this team is the passing conductor and, more than Ezekiel Elliott, whoever is running plays for the Cowboys next year can not be allowed to play behind an O-line this poor.
It’s not too early to begin planning what to do after Ezekiel Elliot, aligning the next great Dallas O-line salaries with the dwindling cap space Zeke will take every year is the best way to begin a new era.
The new era may be Dak Prescott or maybe a rookie QB or a vet, but it’ll be at least a good quarterback, which is worth exponentially more than a good running back.