A $63M Way the Cowboys Can Make Ezekiel Elliott the NFL's Highest-Paid RB Ever

By , RADIO.COM

FRISCO (105.3 THE FAN) - What if there was a smart and fair way to solve the Dallas Cowboys' contractual dealings with NFL rushing champion Ezekiel Elliott?

There is, and it is a way that would make Zeke the highest-paid running back in NFL history while also offering the Cowboys ample escape hatches.

Let's deal with the truths we know so far:

1) As Yahoo's Charles Robinson and yours truly wrote in the wake of the ProFootballTalk.com report that Elliott "will'' stage a training camp holdout this week, there exists a "30-day rule'' that means the player must report by Aug. 6 (30 days before the start of the NFL regular season) in order to accrue 2019 toward free agency. Hold out this year and Zeke loses all of his leverage next year. So a true holdout that goes beyond Aug. 6 is unwise and unlikely.

2) Dallas does, however, wish to avoid distractions and drama here. They would like to pacify its star, who I believe is hungry for, among other things, an acknowledgement that he should be as much of a contract-extension priority as teammates Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper.

3) These negotiations thus far have the two parties "not close,'' as I reported last week.

4) The Cowboys are on the record as being willing to make Elliott the top-salaried running back in football history. (Though an asterisk may be warranted here.)

Armed with those four facts, let's go to work with The Big Calculator, and with my colleague Joey Ickes at the controls.

Zeke has no real reason to stage an extended holdout now. A year from now, a holdout would make more sense. But even a year from now, Dallas maintains contractual control for two more seasons, with the fifth-year option (at $9.09 million for 2020) and a potential franchise tag (about $11 million for 2021).

The total cost of managing Zeke's contract in that manner for 2020 and 2021 is about $21 million.

So, $21 mil over those two years is the baseline for the team. Sensibly, the goal for both sides then should be to sign Zeke to a deal that gives him more cash in the first two years of the deal than he is already slotted to get (that's a Zeke win), but also leaves the team a ton of flexibility in 2022 and beyond should they -- in the grind-'em-up-and-spit-'em-out reality of a running back's existence -- desire to move on.

Joey's chart above shows the answers. This contract allows Zeke to eclipse Todd Gurley in total money for the largest running back contract ever, ($63 million in new money), total guaranteed money ($46.35 mil) and for the most money guaranteed at signing, ($25.95 mil).

This contract does, however, back off from the "Gurley as the ground floor'' sentiment expressed by the Joneses as it regards APY. It falls short of Gurley's number ($14 mil) by putting Elliott's average per year at $12.6 million.

From the team side, this contract increases his cap hit in 2019 by $2.2 mil, but reduces his 2020 cap by $400,000 and his projected 2021 cap by $1 million -- meaning that for the next three seasons, Zeke's cap impact is essentially the same under the new deal as it would be with an option and a tag, and leaves the Cowboys the ability to move on after 2021 with only $4.4 mil in dead money, or after 2022 with only $2.2 mil in dead money.

The compromises here? Zeke compromises down on the APY but the Cowboys otherwise pay him like Gurley (nearly $30 mil in guaranteed money in the next three years). Dallas gets its escape hatches in future seasons, but Ezekiel Elliott as a "$63 million man'' gets to be ballyhooed as the highest-paid running back in the history of the sport.

And both sides achieve peace at Dallas Cowboys training camp ... and beyond, toward what the organization believes can be a Zeke-led push toward Super Bowl contention.

We're not trying to make this sound easier than it is; Joey's work here is very intricate, necessitates the deal be stretched to six full seasons, and is full of compromises. But it's also full of promises met, and in that sense represents a smart and fair way to keep Zeke from hanging out too long on Florio Beach, or wherever.