Tyron Smith has been a quiet pillar of the offensive line for the better part of decade.
Elliott and Smith are two of the more accomplished and decorated players in a Cowboys uniform. They have become associated with this team.
That doesn’t mean they’ll be back next season.
But wait. Didn’t Jerry Jones just tell reporters that he’d like for both players to return?
Yes. But when has the Cowboys owner ever not wanted to welcome veterans back at this stage of the offseason? Jerry and Stephen Jones also made other comments around that soundbite, some that didn’t gain as much traction, that make clear serious discussions must be undertaken before the return of Elliott and Smith becomes a reality.
The evaluation of every player on the roster is up next at The Star. Then the focus shifts to contractual considerations and where those players fit going forward. It’s a long way from wanting Elliott and Smith back to saying it will happen.
No one has made that declaration.
Running on empty
There are indications from Elliott’s camp that he’s willing to discuss a pay cut to stay. That only starts the conversation.
Next comes a question the Cowboys must answer for themselves. If Elliott does return for an eighth season, his involvement in the offense will:
A) Increase from where it was in 2022.
B) Remain the same.
Door No. 3 is the correct answer here.
Now, to what extent will it be reduced? A touch or two a game? Down to six to eight touches?
When a role is that limited, the back usually has to contribute on special teams to be active on gameday. Is that a realistic role for Elliott at this stage of his career?
Is it a role he’d accept?
Asked if he wanted Elliott back, Jerry Jones responded that he would “like to have him back next year, yes.’’ He talked about the positives and how the running back brings more to the table than the stats reveal. He also said this:
“I don’t want to talk about Zeke until we’ve had the benefit of really evaluating our whole season,’’ Jerry Jones said.
Here are the broad strokes of what that evaluation will show.
Elliott rushed for 876 yards on 3.8 yards a carry. Both represent career lows. He failed to crack the Top 20 in rushing this season. How many 100 yard games?
None. Elliott has gone 27 games failing to crack a milestone he once surpassed frequently. His last 100-yard game came in October 2021.
In his prime, Elliott was a hammer. He swung away at opponents as the game wore on. He was often at this best at the end of games and the end of the season.
This season? Elliott averaged 49.8 yards on 3.28 yards a carry in the six regular season games after Thanksgiving.
Stephen Jones called Elliott the ultimate competitor, a blue-collar back who is amazing in what he’s done during his Cowboys tenure. He said what Elliott brings to the table is hard to define.
But salaries are designed to define a player’s worth to the franchise. Elliott’s base for the 2023 season is $10.9 million.
Tony Pollard is now the team’s lead back. His base salary was $965,000 in 2022 and he’s about to be a free agent. If the club can’t sign him to a long-term deal, it will likely apply the franchise tag ($10.09 million) to keep him from hitting the open market.
If that happens, how much will Dallas be willing to pay Elliott?
“We’re probably one of the top teams in the league already with what we pay running backs,’’ Stephen Jones said. “We have to make sure how we pay attention to this and how we spread it out, how we divide up the pie. We have to relook at that.
“Obviously, Tony is looking to make more money. So, we have to relook the whole things in terms of running back and what that looks like.
“You always want Zeke. But do the numbers work?’’
Missing in action
Tyron Smith finds himself in a comparable position.
When Smith was taken with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, he became the first offensive lineman taken by the franchise in the first round in 30 years. He didn’t disappoint. Smith has been to eight Pro Bowls and is in the discussion for the NFL’s most dominant left tackle of the last decade.
That Smith missed only one game in his first five seasons and 13 in his first nine years in the league?
This Smith has only been available for 17 games and missed 33 games over the last three seasons. That means he’s been unavailable for two of every three games Mike McCarthy has been the head coach.
Smith ended this season as the Cowboys starting right tackle in place of the injured Terrence Steele. It was the first time he played the position since his rookie season, and he struggled.
Asked if Smith will be back next season, Stephen Jones said, “I have no reason to believe he won’t.’’ Again, at what price?
Smith carries a base salary of $13.6 million into next season. That’s not unreasonable. But can the coaching staff count on him as a starter? If they envision him in a swing tackle role, is he good enough at right tackle to make that feasible?
The Jones family is right. Elliott and Smith bring more to this team than their statistics.
Elliott remains a force on third-and-short and the red zone. Smith remains dominant at times. Both have put team first and are leaders in their own way.
Elliott’s willingness to take a step back for Pollard’s rise was a positive in the locker room and for the offense. Smith’s willingness to play a position he hadn’t since his rookie season was something to be lauded.
But leadership in the NFL tends to shift to those who play the biggest roles in a team’s success. How much are Elliott and Smith willing to diminish their status — and bank accounts — to stay with the Cowboys?
And this isn’t a one-way street. Elliott and/or Smith might be able to fill bigger roles with other teams around the league.
If the Cowboys decide to move on from one or both players it won’t be easy.
But it must, and will, be discussed.
Catch David Moore and Robert Wilonsky as they co-host Intentional Grounding on The Ticket (KTCK-AM 1310 and 96.7 FM) every Wednesday at 7 p.m. through the Super Bowl.