Looking at the Cowboys Contract with Ezekiel Elliott

The numbers are now in on Ezekiel Elliot’s 6 year, $90 million contract from ESPN’s Todd Archer so let’s break the deal down.

Cash Flows of the Contract

This is a pretty straightforward contract that simply takes the most recent top of the market contract and slightly builds on it. Essentially it is what we are used to seeing happen with quarterbacks when each newly signed player jumps the last by a few dollars. Here is the new money breakdown by season.

Player Year 0 Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 Year 6
Ezekiel Elliott $15,100,000 $24,700,000 $37,100,000 $48,000,000 $58,000,000 $73,400,000 $90,000,000
Todd Gurley $15,000,022 $28,050,022 $37,050,022 $47,050,022 $57,500,000  – – 
Le’Veon Bell $14,500,000 $28,000,000 $39,500,000 $52,500,000  – – 
David Johnson $12,000,000 $18,750,000 $30,000,000 $39,000,000  –  – – 

For the most part Elliott will outearn Gurley by $100,000 over the prior existing years of the contract, $50,000 by the 2nd year of the deal, $100,000 by the 3rd year of the deal, and $500,000 by the 4th year of the contract. That is when Gurley’s contract ends. Those two contracts are really in a class all by themselves compared to the other players.

There are two differences here which do work in Dallas’ favor. One is that they they do get a nice discount through the first “new year” of the contract, which is the 2021 season. They will pay Elliott $3.35 million less than the Rams will Gurley over the same timeframe. I think this is important for two reasons. One is that Dallas does have a number of free agents coming up and while I don’t anticipate them being cash starved this does give them more room to work with their current players. The second, and more on this in a minute, is that there is a fair reason to believe that Elliott will void his guarantees at some point so the less money paid early in the contract the more that will be saved overall.

The second difference is that Gurley does have $2.5 million in escalators in his contract that can increase his salary on the tail end, which I do not believe that Elliott has. Gurley has already earned $1 million of that so his potential earnings should exceed Elliott’s over the same timeframe. If I am wrong and Elliott has escalators than this is not something in the Cowboys favor and simply continues to mimic the Gurley contract.

Guarantee Structure

Again we have a contract that more or less mimics Gurley’s guarantee dates with Elliott receiving guarantees on his 2021 salary by being on the roster in 2020 where his salary was already guaranteed and then guarantees on his 2022 salary in 2021 when his salary is already guaranteed for that year.  Those are very favorable guarantee structures for a player because it creates a situation where you are paying a lot of money to a player just to make sure his salary the next year does not exist.

Effectively what it means is that Dallas would have to pay Elliott $19.8 million in 2020 to avoid his $9.6 million 2021 salary from guaranteeing or $9.6 million in 2021 to prevent his 2022 $12.4 million salary from guaranteeing. The odds of that are slim and none.

That said the way the salaries work do benefit the Cowboys as to where they are after 2020.

Elliott Gurley
Fully Guaranteed At Signing $28,052,137 $21,950,000
Fully Guaranteed Year after Signing $37,652,137 $40,000,000
Fully Guaranteed Two Years After Signing $50,052,137 $45,000,000

While in most cases I would say that this slight difference in relatively meaningless I look at Elliott similar to the way I look at Le’Veon Bell, although for different reasons. Guarantees in NFL contracts are easily voided in most cases. At the very least a NFL suspension for any reason would void the guarantees in a contract. If Dallas got very aggressive with Elliott you could probably find a way to void a guarantee for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and having an incident reflect poorly on the organization.

If the guarantees do void then Dallas has the potential to escape at an earlier date either via a release or a renegotiation. Again not likely but Dallas has built in a better structure for that purpose than the Rams did.

Other Contract Mechanism Comparisons

Both Gurley and Elliott received essentially the same prorated bonus money. Prorated bonus money is the stuff that sticks to the salary cap as dead money in the event that a player is cut so the more the better for the player. Gurley received $21 million while Elliott will receive $20.5 million as a signing and an option bonus. For the Rams the $21 million should give them more protection in the event of a contract breach since signing bonus prorations can be recaptured. Recapturing option bonuses are more limited in scope and Elliott has a $13.5 million option.

Gurley’s contract is stronger in regard to roster bonuses where he has millions coming his way either for being on the roster in March or reporting to training camp. These are harder to recover in the event of suspension whereas Elliot’s salary, all base salary other than the two prorated bonuses, would all be lost on a proportionate basis if suspended. These are minor things but stronger for Dallas than LA.    

The Salary Cap Consequences.

While the cap charts for Elliott may look like there are early escape points there really are not. Barring a suspension there is no reason to think that Elliott will not earn his $50 million. The cost to cut on the salary cap in 2020 would be a whopping $25.8 million. If he is on the roster in 2020 than the cost to cut in 2021 grows from $14.9 million to $24.5 million. Once on the roster in 2021 than the cost to cut in 2022 grows to $23.2 million. This is all because of the favorable vesting schedule on his base salary guarantees. If Dallas negotiated 5th day of the same league year vesting dates those 2021 and 2022 years would be $14.9 and $10.8 million during the offseason which are not great but doable. So unless the guarantees void for some reason his cap hits of $13.7 and $16.5 million will happen in 2021 and 2022.

The true exit year of the contract is 2023 when his dead money is just $6.7 million on a $15 million salary cap charge. If his performance declines by then it is certainly feasible to release him or renegotiate a lower salary at that point with no problems.

One thing in looking at this contract is that Dallas should make 100% certain they never touch it for cap relief. Right now 2023 is a viable escape. Its not if they start converting salary to bonuses in 2021 or 2022. Due to the large prorated bonuses this should immediately be moved to the never restructure pile.

The Six Year Length

The contract runs 6 new years which means Dallas controls his rights for 8 years. I have seen some people say that this was a big thing for Dallas since the longer you control a player the better but with a running back I don’t think it matters. The odds of Elliott being effective at this salary level for 8 seasons is very slim.  Basically those added years allowed them to hit a $15 million rather than $14.5 million annual value, but other than that there is really nothing gained or lost by either side for doing the long contract.

The one area where it could benefit Dallas is with Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper. Dallas has strongly favored long contracts for their players that run much longer than NFL norms. This is the case for all their contracts and is the case with Elliott as well. By doing a long deal with Elliott that should allow them to continue to stand their ground on looking for a long term deal with the other two players.

What Took So Long

In seeing how the deal shakes out there is absolutely zero reason that this should have taken all of camp to accomplish. It is too close to the Gurley deal for this to have really been an issue. I don’t know if one side or the other was just being unreasonable but if the contract looks very much like another NFL contract it is one that should not take that long to complete.

Alternative Course of Action

Had Dallas played out the franchise tag process the contracts would likely have been able to tag Elliott at charges somewhere around $11.5 million in 2021 and $13.8 million in 2022, which also would have been his cap charges in those years, both of which are lower than his current cap charges.  He will earn about $12 million more by playing on a contract than going through the tag process, assuming of course the tag doesn’t change in the new CBA.

The tag process is the optimum way to manage a running back but it also creates a constant headache with an unhappy player which can spill into the locker room as well.

In my mind Dallas only had two courses of action. Either do what they did and do a big deal now or fight for four years about the tag. By doing the deal now Dallas basically folds $13 million of virtually guaranteed existing salary into a new contract and gets the benefit of prorating now rather than years from now making it harder to cut. That’s why waiting until 2020 or 2021 to extend makes no sense.

The tag process is easier said than done. The option year is more or less a tag and we see how that is working out for the Chargers and Melvin Gordon or how the actual tag worked out with Bell and the Steelers last season. With so many free agents coming up I can understand why that wasn’t a pathDallas wanted to follow .