As the NFL league year turned over Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys made a move that was almost as surprising as it was logical: releasing running back Ezekiel Elliott.
The three-time Pro Bowler whom Dallas selected fourth overall in the 2016 NFL Draft had since rushed for 8,262 yards and 68 touchdowns, routinely finding soft spots in both defenses and team owner Jerry Jones' heart.
This past season, Elliott contributed 876 yards and 12 touchdowns to a 12-5 campaign.
But a contract that stood in stark contrast to the current NFL landscape, paired with the unleashing of a more explosive and younger teammate, prompted the Cowboys to move on.
"We have mutually agreed with Zeke that the best decision for everyone is that he will be able to experience free agency, and we can increase our flexibility and options," Jones said in a statement. "Zeke's impact and influence is seared into the Cowboys franchise in a very special and indelible way."
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As the Cowboys and Elliott look to independent futures for the first time in seven years, Dallas' immediate outlook seems the clearer of the two. Tony Pollard rushed for 1,007 yards and nine touchdowns last year via a 5.2 yard per carry average. After he completes recovery from a postseason leg fracture, expect Pollard to guide a Cowboys run game that head coach Mike McCarthy wants to feature more prominently. Add in either 2022 undrafted free agent Malik Davis or a draft selection at the position, and the Cowboys will march forward with $10.9 million more cap space after June 1.
His market is complicated even more by recent offensive evolution than it is by his (perhaps not wholly unrelated) decline in production and efficiency.
Yahoo Sports consulted talent evaluators across the NFL to learn more.
The reality awaiting Ezekiel Elliott
Four seasons have elapsed since Elliott’s 40-day contract holdout compelled Jones to award his running back a six-year contract worth $90 million including $50 million in guarantees. NFL contracts are far more complex than simply average annual value — and yet, Elliott’s $15 million-per-year mark was wild then and is perhaps wilder now.
Only San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey, who agreed to his current price point with the Carolina Panthers in 2020, has eclipsed the mark since. McCaffrey and his agent Joel Segal argued then that the player "speaks three languages" with elite running, pass-catching and blocking ability. The receiving threat McCaffrey poses was on full display this past season when he caught 85 passes for 741 receiving yards and five touchdowns… atop his 1,139 yards and eight scores rushing. His compensation reflects the value of a hybrid running back-receiver in a league that pays receivers significantly more.
Zeke practiced hurdling last week, per Dak. Translated to Cowboys-Lions.— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) October 24, 2022
Dak: "He didn’t jump over him but he did the whole slow feet stutter & I was like 'I bet he jumps a guy this week.' Sure enough, it just happened. It’s impressive, a guy in year 7."pic.twitter.com/zPyl3dum2N
After McCaffrey, New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara is the only other running back who makes more than $12.6 million a year. Kamara has contributed 43% of his production and 31% of his scoring in the passing game compared with Elliott, whose receiving resume only accounts for 22% of his yardage and 15% of his scoring. That matters to NFL teams and their contract writers.
Talent evaluators from three different organizations agreed on the main premises: Pass-heavy concepts continue to devalue run talent. Injuries to running backs on second contracts — think the Los Angeles Rams’ Todd Gurley, Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry, Elliott and even McCaffrey — reinforce concerns about the position’s durability.
“Being run-first is almost frowned upon now,” one pro scout told Yahoo Sports.
“There's only a handful or two of true RB1s in the league anymore,” added another.
An AFC executive agreed that “it has become a two-man job instead of having one dominant back.”
That executive’s conclusion?
“I don’t think RBs as a position will be getting big money anymore.”
For Elliott, time will not heal all
Two temporal factors now hurt Elliott: The years that have passed since he received a valuation of worth that no longer passes the eye test, and the days that have passed in the 2023 free agency cycle (and legal and illegal tampering cycles) during which three major running back contracts have been awarded.
After Miles Sanders rushed for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns last season with the Philadelphia Eagles, the Panthers awarded him a four-year, $25 million deal with $13 million guaranteed, per Spotrac. Jamaal Williams' 1,066 yards and league-high 17 touchdowns season netted him a three-year deal worth $12 million with $8 million guaranteed. Meanwhile the Lions, who let Williams walk, gave ex-Chicago Bears back David Montgomery a three-year, $18 million deal with $11 million guaranteed coming off an 801-yard, five-touchdown season.
To state the obvious, this means three teams who were in need of and willing to pay something for a running back this spring no longer meet either criteria.
Also, three players whose production slots within the vicinity of Elliott’s total output are averaging between $4 million and $6.25 million a year, with no meaningful guarantees after two years’ time. Elliott’s efficiency fell short of each of those three players, the Cowboys bellcow averaging 3.8 yards per carry in 2022 compared to Montgomery’s 4.0, Williams’ 4.1 and Sanders’ 4.9.
Football Outsiders further assess running back efficiency with a DVOA ranking accounting for play scenarios and opponents. Across the 2022 season, Sanders ranked sixth, Montgomery, 22nd, Elliott 24th and Williams 26th.
“He’s still valuable in short-yardage and goal-line situations,” said one of the pro scouts, who also touted Elliott’s pass-protection strength. “Zeke has a lot of potential left to stay a dominant first- and second-down back. He has unique size and strength combined with vision and good feet behind the (line of scrimmage) to stress first-level defenses out. I can see him going to a team who wants to be a run-first offense and utilize his skill set to set up efficient first- and second-down chunks and limit third-and-long situations.
“But it’ll be interesting to see what type of contract he gets if that’s the role he’s going to be given.”
Jones' sentimentality will not cushion Elliott's next deal.
Where will Ezekiel Elliott play next season?
Coaches and executives predicting Elliott's landing spots to Yahoo Sports included the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears and Cincinnati Bengals among teams who would benefit from his services. If the Los Angeles Chargers complete a trade of running back Austin Ekeler (they have reportedly granted his request to seek one), Elliott could be in consideration to reunite with his longtime coordinator and teammate Kellen Moore, though poor scheme fit and philosophy may outweigh personal familiarity. An even better fit, perhaps, is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who just released Fournette and hired Elliott's longtime position coach Skip Peete.
Each evaluator believed Elliott would be pursued for some sort of role, because though "the RB market is pretty unforgiving, particularly this free agency," one of the scouts said, "he's still young 'enough' with a history of production to land an opportunity/role somewhere.
“And I don't think anyone can deny his toughness.”
As for how much Elliott could make, an AFC executive estimated Elliott could receive an offer at $5 million with incentives.
Even that executive questioned if he would validate such a deal.
“Think teams are mostly paying for the name,” the executive said. “I think the open market will be humbling for him.”
Follow Yahoo Sports' Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein