With Tony Pollard in fold, what's next for Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys?

FRISCO, Texas -- After the Dallas Cowboys placed the $10.091 million franchise tag on Tony Pollard on Monday, the attention immediately moved to fellow running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott is set to count $16.4 million against the salary cap with a nonguaranteed $10.4 million base salary. The Cowboys could look for Elliott to take a significant pay cut, but it’s worth pointing out they did not make pay-cut offers to linebacker DeMarcus Ware and receiver Dez Bryant before releasing both players.

Speaking late last week at the NFL scouting combine, owner and general manager Jerry Jones was not ready to say Elliott had reached the end of the line with the Cowboys. He said Elliott’s knee injury limited him for a good portion of the season, playing a part in his career-low 876 yards.

“If I could replicate the feeling that I had before [Pollard] got hurt and the feeling with Zeke, I’d dial it right now,” Jones said. “That very feeling. I would not try to improve upon that right now.”

Per ESPN’s Stats & Information, Pollard ranked fourth among running backs last year in yards per touch (5.9); Elliott was last (3.9).

Last year, the Cowboys tied up $20.6 million to their running back room. With Pollard now on the tag, that number is at $27.68 million in 2023. That figure does not make fiscal sense in a salary-cap league where running backs’ values have been diminished.

If the Cowboys cut Elliott, they would save $4.86 million. If they designate him a post-June 1 cut, they would save $10.9 million.

The Cowboys would like to sign Pollard to a multiyear deal. With the tag in place, they have until July 17 to do so or he will play the season counting $10.09 million against the cap.

They don’t have concern about the surgery he had to fix the high ankle sprain he suffered in the playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, either.

“I feel very confident that he can have the kind of recovery that will not minimize or impact how he plays,” Jones said.

The Cowboys put the tag on quarterback Dak Prescott after he suffered a compound fracture and dislocation of his right ankle in 2020 before signing him to a four-year, $160 million deal. It’s not just a Cowboy thing. Receiver Chris Godwin (2022), offensive tackle Cam Robinson (2022), receiver A.J. Green (2020) and guard Brandon Scherff (2020) were given the franchise tag after suffering injuries the previous season, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Now to tight end Dalton Schultz.

Had the Cowboys opted to use the franchise tag on him for a second straight year, it would have cost $13 million. The Cowboys offered him a multiyear deal last year that averaged $12 million per season.

Schultz is productive. In 2022, he finished with 57 catches for 577 yards and five touchdowns, joining Travis Kelce (Chiefs), Mark Andrews (Ravens) and T.J. Hockenson (Lions/Vikings) as the only tight ends to have 50 or more catches for 500 or more yards in each of the past three seasons.

Among tight ends since 2020, he is tied for third in forcing missed tackles (31), sixth in yards after contact (405) and 10th in yards after the catch (828). He has been a reliable presence for Prescott.

But with free agency approaching, there does not appear to be any momentum toward a long-term deal. The Cowboys did not have a meeting with his agent at the combine, and this is considered to be one of the best tight end drafts in quite some time. Plus, the Cowboys believe Jake Ferguson (19 catches, 174 yards, 2 TDs) and Peyton Hendershot (11 catches, 103 yards, 2 TDs) are ready for bigger roles after good rookie seasons and Sean McKeon is also under contract.

Actually, the vibes coming out of Indianapolis when it comes to most of the Cowboys' free-agents-to-be is the team wants the players to see their markets and come back to the Cowboys to see if they will match. Not all of them, but most.

Even if the Cowboys wanted to retain some of them, they will have to create some salary cap room.

With the Pollard deal counting against the cap now, they are about $20 million over the $225 million cap, according to Roster Management.

They can restructure Prescott's contract, which would open up as much as $22 million. A Prescott extension would open up more, but that won’t happen before next week. There’s the potential Elliott savings if he's cut or takes a pay cut. They can restructure the contract of wide receiver Michael Gallup and create $7 million in space. They can get nearly $18 million if they restructure the deals of defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and guard Zack Martin.

Space won’t be the issue.

The willingness to create that space and chew into future years when the Cowboys need money for WR CeeDee Lamb, CB Trevon Diggs, C Tyler Biadasz, LB Micah Parsons and others is the issue.

Pollard is the first piece. Whether Elliott could be the second is a completely different matter.