I may not look it, but in many ways, I’m a pioneer. Well actually just one way. When I handed off to RotoPat for the start of his afternoon news shift on Monday, he told me I'm probably the first writer to cite Maxim in a Rotoworld blurb. I’m not sure I’d add that to my LinkedIn profile, but it’s an interesting nugget nonetheless.
So how did Maxim earn a mention on Rotoworld? Believe it or not, the magazine dipped into the sports journalism waters by running a profile on Ezekiel Elliott, who—like Vincent Chase after his ill-advised passion project Medellin became the laughingstock of Cannes (any Entourage fans in the room?)—has retreated to a Mexican beach paradise. That’s an odd place to shack up when the football season is about to start, but for the moment, Zeke isn’t too worried about X’s and O’s. He wants to get paid.
Historically, holdouts like the one staged by Zeke (Melvin Gordon, Jadeveon Clowney and Trent Williams have also spent the summer playing hooky from their respective teams) are rarely successful. Elliott’s line in the sand seems particularly ambitious given that he still has two years left on his rookie deal. While others might wait for a contract year or the franchise tag before making a stink, Zeke decided to expedite the process, bypassing the usual honeymoon period and diving straight into the “contentious contract negotiations” stage of the relationship.
Except there’s not much negotiating going on. The Cowboys presented an offer that would have made Elliott the second-richest running back behind Todd Gurley, but apparently that peace offering wasn’t enough to lure him back to Big D. With the 24-year-old in no mood to compromise, Cowboys executive VP Stephen Jones isn’t sure where to turn next. “I don't think we're close because there hasn't been a lot of activity,” Jones said Friday during his weekly radio hit on 105.3 The Fan. “Right now, I wouldn’t say that I feel anything’s imminent.”
That doesn’t sound like a man brimming with optimism. Holdouts used to be perceived as idle threats, brash negotiating ploys aimed at stirring the pot, but Le’Veon Bell forever altered that calculus, falling on his sword for running backs everywhere by sitting out all of 2018. His forfeited salary (totaling $14.5 million) was the collateral damage. Whether Bell won in the end is debatable—the deal he eventually struck with the Jets was less than what the Steelers had originally offered him (not factoring in guaranteed money, a common sticking point in contract talks). But the shred of doubt he placed in the mind of owners and GMs across the league reverberates today, especially in the case of Zeke, an off-field enigma who might be just crazy enough to follow in Bell’s reckless footsteps.
The league’s “use ‘em and lose ‘em approach” to young workhorses is at the crux of this current standoff between players and NFL front offices. It makes sense why teams won’t pay top dollar for even upper-echelon backs like Zeke and Gordon. Running backs are fairly replaceable (James Conner filled in seamlessly after Bell abandoned Pittsburgh last season) and the eminently short shelf life that comes with playing such a punishing position makes them poor long-term investments. The Rams have had some true strokes of genius in recent years (hence their remarkable turnaround), but sinking $60 million into Gurley and his arthritic knee wasn’t one of them.
The odds would seem to be stacked against Elliott for this exact reason, but leading the sport in rushing yards every year you’ve been in the league does afford you some form of leverage. You only need to walk a few blocks down Memory Lane to arrive at 2017, the year Zeke served a six-game suspension following allegations of domestic violence. In the three years Elliott has spent with Dallas, only 2017 ended without a postseason berth. Coincidence? I think not.
Is it a fundamental flaw in team construction that Dallas relies so heavily on its star running back in an age dominated by high-powered passing attacks? Probably. But unlike the Chargers, who should be just fine without Gordon (Austin Ekeler and Justin Jackson are capable enough), it’s hard to imagine the Cowboys posing much of a threat without their ace in the hole. Load up on Tony Pollard fantasy shares to your heart’s content, but don’t fool yourself. He’s no Zeke.
Deadlines tend to spur action and maybe an 11th-hour deal comes to fruition ahead of September 8 when the Cowboys host the rival Giants in an opening-week grudge match at AT&T Stadium. But there are only so many millions to go around and unfortunately for Jerry Jones’ wallet, Zeke isn’t the only Cowboy looking to cash in. Lead receiver Amari Cooper is on the cusp of free agency while Dak Prescott and Byron Jones are also seeking extensions. Plus, Dallas has already done its fair share of spending this year, ponying up $105 million for stud pass-rusher DeMarcus Lawrence and another $64 million for up-and-comer Jaylon Smith. The Cowboys have cap space to work with (roughly $23 million this year and $67.2 next season, according to Overthecap.com), but keeping the team’s core intact is still going to be a difficult balancing act.
It’s always divisive when a player puts himself first (just look at the backlash Andrew Luck has drawn for calling it quits so close to the regular season) and there could be a point where this tug of war turns ugly. But we’re not there yet. If the Maxim article taught us anything, it’s that Elliott lives and breathes Cowboys football. This isn’t a case of a player wearing out his welcome like Antonio Brown, who masterfully burned every bridge on his way out of the Steel City. By all accounts, the former fourth overall pick loves playing with a star on his helmet, and if he can, he’d like to keep it that way. “It’s a dream come true,” said Zeke while acknowledging how “fortunate” he and Prescott are to play behind the best offensive line in football. “I want to be a Dallas Cowboy for as long as I can.” While it’s possible Elliott’s perspective has changed in the month since his sit-down with Maxim, it’s clear the former Ohio State Buckeye envisions himself playing many more Sundays under the bright lights at Jerry’s World. But at what price? Well that’s the (many) million-dollar question, isn’t it?
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Quick Hits: Cam Newton, who shed his walking boot over the weekend, was present for Monday’s practice but was limited to side work with a trainer. The former MVP bowed out of Thursday’s preseason game with a sprained foot, though the Panthers still expect him to be in tow for Week 1 against the Rams. … David Moore appeared to be headed for a lengthy absence after breaking his humerus at practice last week, but received good news from a second opinion. He won’t be on hand for the Seahawks’ opener in two weeks, though the team is confident he’ll avoid a stint on injured reserve. With DK Metcalf (knee surgery) also a long shot for Week 1, look for Jaron Brown to open the year as a starter opposite Tyler Lockett … Dante Pettis tweaked his groin during the Niners’ third preseason game Saturday at Kansas City. He’s been the subject of recent criticism from head coach Kyle Shanahan, who feels the second-year receiver needs to play with “more urgency.” Once tapped as a prime breakout candidate, Pettis has seen his ADP plummet to the 10th round. … Anthony Miller (ankle) was back on the practice field Monday following a two-week absence. He’s looking to build off a strong debut season, which saw him rank second among rookies with seven touchdown receptions. … A leg injury kept Mike Evans from suiting up Friday against Cleveland, but he was back participating at Monday’s practice. Coming off a career-high in yards (1,524), the sixth-year receiver should be in for another huge season, particularly with offensive-minded head coach Bruce Arians now calling the shots in Tampa Bay. … Kenyan Drake got some practice reps in on Monday. He seems to be over his foot injury, though even at 100 percent, the fourth-year ball-carrier is likely headed for a timeshare with 2018 fourth-rounder Kalen Ballage. … Albert Wilson has resumed running at full speed and has been cleared to practice without any limitations. The Dolphins have slow-played Wilson’s recovery from a hip injury, though it looks like he’ll be full-go for Miami’s opening week matchup with Baltimore. … After spending last season out of the league, Matt Moore has resurfaced as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. KC needed a backup arm after losing Chad Henne to a broken ankle over the weekend. … Redskins coach Jay Gruden indicated that Bryce Love will be stashed on the reserve/PUP list to begin the year. A fourth-round rookie out of Stanford, the former Heisman runner-up is still working back from a torn ACL he suffered late last season. … It’s been a rough few days for the Colts (Bill Belichick learned of Andrew Luck’s retirement at a press conference), but at least they received some encouraging news Monday with the return of Parris Campbell, who sat out most of training camp with a nagging hamstring injury. Considering how much time he missed, the second-round rookie figures to play limited snaps early on. … Things aren’t looking good for hobbled Bengals receiver A.J. Green. According to beat reporter Jay Morrison of The Athletic, a Week 3 return would likely be the best-case scenario for Green, who is still getting around on a scooter following last month’s ankle surgery. … Golden Tate shed his non-contact jersey at Monday’s practice, suggesting he has cleared the last stages of the concussion protocol. The veteran slot receiver will have to wait until Week 5 to make his Giants debut while he serves a four-game PED suspension. … Odell Beckham resumed team drills on Monday, an indicator he’ll be ready to roll when the Browns host Tennessee in Week 1. The three-time Pro Bowler had been suffering from a hip pointer. … Keke Coutee was on the field Monday, practicing for the first time since hurting his ankle in Houston’s preseason opener. If he can stay healthy (which wasn’t the case during his injury-riddled rookie season), Coutee should serve as the Texans’ primary slot receiver in 2019. … When you’re watching the new Dave Chappelle special on Netflix, make sure to look for me in the audience. You can see my face … kind of.