The Dallas Cowboys could have a completely different running back room next season. As of this writing, Tony Pollard is an impending free agent, and Ezekiel Elliott has no guaranteed money left on his $90 million contract.
By making Elliott a post-June 1 cut, the Cowboys, currently $7 million over the cap for 2023, could save $10.9 million against the cap. They’d absorb just $5.8 million in dead money. When you couple that with Elliott’s alarming decline in both production (in terms of yards) and efficiency, it seems like a no-brainer.
Pollard’s situation is much more complicated. Coming off the first 1,000-yard season of his career, Pollard was the heart and soul of Dallas’ offense alongside CeeDee Lamb. He averaged 5.2 yards per attempt and compiled nine rushing scores. He added 39 catches for 371 yards and three TDs as a receiver.
Incredibly, Pollard’s rookie contract is already up — it went faster since he hardly played his first two seasons — and the Cowboys have to decide whether to extend him, let him leave in free agency, or hit him with the franchise tag.
The franchise tag has always felt like the most likely outcome, but that would mean giving Pollard a healthy chunk of the 2023 cap space.
The Cowboys shouldn’t give Tony Pollard franchise tag money.
The kicker about the franchise tag is that the entire number counts against your cap space, meaning Pollard would account for a $10.091 million cap hit next year. For a team that’s already $7 million over the $224.8 million cap, it would be counterintuitive to give Pollard that much of the proverbial pie.
An extension would be the smarter move for the Cowboys, but even that isn’t as obvious as it seems given the money Pollard will demand coming off a career year. We’d all agree that Pollard is the superior player to the Bengals’ Joe Mixon, right? Well, Mixon makes $12 million annually on his current contract.
While Pollard doesn’t have Mixon’s track record, he has just 510 carries on his tires, and it’s reasonable to assume his best football is ahead of him.
The Cowboys could certainly soften the cap blow in a potential Pollard extension by giving him a bigger signing bonus or add voidable years to the deal. Dallas would eventually have to pay the piper, but only down the road and the number won’t seem as daunting given the cap increases (explodes) every year.
Even then, what team hasn’t regretted paying a running back? The Cowboys are in a lose-lose situation. Either Dallas tags Pollard and has a RB accounting for $10 million of their 2023 cap, or they extend Pollard and face the consequences of him breaking down two years into the deal.
And let’s pose the question: are we absolutely positive Pollard is a 20-25 carry per game running back? Would he be worth that much?
These are all questions Jerry Jones and the front office have to face head-on. Pollard doesn’t have nearly the mileage Elliot had at the time of his extension, but the Cowboys hopefully learned their lesson of giving RBs lucrative deals.
The only way Pollard should be back on the franchise tag is if Elliott is released. Anything more than that would be organizational malpractice.
Even then, I trust Will McClay and his team of scouts to identify a running back in the upcoming draft who could come close to mirroring Pollard’s production for a quarter of the price.