Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard formed arguably the NFL's best running back tandem this season. The duo may be headed for a break up. Pollard, who suffered a high ankle sprain and broken left fibula in the Cowboys' season ending 19-12 loss to the 49ers in the divisional playoffs, is an unrestricted free agent.
Elliott isn't earning his keep. He has been trending in the wrong direction statistically since becoming the first running back in the league history to sign a $100 million contract. The two-time rushing champion signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension, which made him the NFL's highest paid running back at $15 million per year, shortly before the start of the 2019 regular season to end a lengthy preseason holdout. Elliott, who had two years remaining on his rookie contact, established new standards for running backs with $50,052,137 in overall guarantees and $28,052,137 fully guaranteed at signing with deal.
The 2022 season was the worst of Elliott's seven-year NFL career. He had 231 rushing attempts for 876 rushing yards with 3.8 yards per carry, all career lows. He caught 17 passes for 92 yards, which were more career worsts.
Elliott also averaged a career low 58.4 rushing yards per game. Prior to Elliott getting his extension, he averaged 101.2 rushing yards per game.
Pollard was Dallas' most consistent and effective running back. He earned his first Pro Bowl berth by rushing for 1,007 yards while averaging 5.2 yards per carry, which was third in the NFL among running backs. This was Pollard's first 1,000 yard rushing season.
Pollard is a prime candidate for a franchise designation despite the injury. The non-exclusive franchise tag for running backs projects to 4.489% of salary cap. If the 2023 salary cap is set at $225 million, the running back number should be $10.1 million.
Elliott is scheduled to make $10.9 million in 2023 on a $16.72 million cap number. He has 2023's second largest cap hit for a running back.
Teams rarely make a significant financial investment in two running backs simultaneously. Pollard can certainly be retained long term for less than the $52.9 million in the final four years of Elliott's contract running from 2023 through 2026.