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Why the Cowboys should Trade Ezekiel Elliott

Top 4 Trade Destinations for Ezekiel Elliott

At face-value, it seems like heresy to trade Ezekiel Elliott, a player who has spent his entire future Hall of Fame career with the team. The Texans committed that sin with Hopkins last year and I think it’s safe to say that Karma has come full circle on that one. Trading away a Pro-Bowler is one thing, but a future Hall of Famer?

Well, depends on who you ask. There’s certainly an argument to be made as to why you would ride that train until it inevitably derails, the man has over 8,000 scrimmage yards and 55 TDs in his first 5 seasons. His ability to be a threat in the running-game and the passing game makes it nearly impossible to try to match-up with an offense as loaded as Dallas. When you also factor in that the blueprint for success in the postseason starts with the ability to run the football, well, it makes you question my sanity a little bit more. 

However, with every handoff he receives, every would-be tackler he sheds, and every yard he grinds out, it’s just one more step towards the inevitable. Workhorse backs just don’t last. For every Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore you throw out there, I’ll counter with a Toddy Gurley, Marshawn Lynch, Michael Tuner, and Corey Dillon. Do you really want to roll the dice on the notion he can prove you wrong? We’re not just talking about potentially being served a heaping slice of humble pie, no, we’re talking about potentially misallocating tens of millions of dollars in an asset that is no longer critical to the team’s success. 

With Dak Prescott on a new deal, the offense isn’t going to be reminiscent of the 90s glory days. It’ll be more along the lines of what the Seahawks did a few years ago when they handed the keys to the Wilson and built the offense around him. Dak is no longer in need of a 230-pound safety option, he’s proven over the last couple of seasons that he more than able to shoulder the load and lead an offense. It doesn’t hurt that he has a trio of receivers that would make even Mahomes a bit envious.

Regardless, we all saw what they devolved into once the Red Rocket took the helm. So, can you really continue to pay Zeke roughly $14M and Prescott $35M on an annual basis? Not at the expense of other aspects of the team at least, whether that be quality depth at key positions, quality role players, or allotting yourself no room for error in the draft.

Obviously, you’re not marketing Elliot at peak value either, he’s coming off his worst-statistical season ever. Instead, the real value will be in the cap space Dallas will be saving going forward, especially with more pressing needs heading into free agency. So, let’s hand Dak the keys, take the car out of park, and drive off with Zeke slowly fading into the distance. Here are the top four options they have to trade Ezekiel Elliott.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers

They are one of the most desperate teams when it comes to trying to jump start their running game, they were last in 2020 and 28th in 2019. James Connor was a one-hit wonde and now Big Ben is being asked to throw the ball 600+ times a year. They have to have Ezekiel Elliot. Pittsburgh was 11-0 before their inability to run the football made them completely one-dimensional. 

Shockingly, but not shockingly, Mike Tomlin could find himself on the hot-seat. That’s how poorly the 2020 season ended. They went from a team that was setting its eye on a perfect season and in a blink of an eye, they were walking off Heinz field losers to their division rival Cleveland Browns, for the first time in 17 years.

So, time to strike if you’re Dallas! Zeke’s a big name and the kind of swing that can entice a desperate coach to part with more than anyone else. Pittsburgh is in win-now mode and doesn’t really have any pieces that they’d be willing to part with via trade. With that said, they also don’t have many holes on this roster as injuries took their toll in 2020, so it’s not like the draft is going to be much more than adding depth pieces.

Cowboys Trade: Ezekiel Elliott and 44th pick in 2021 draft.

Cowboys Receive: 24th and 119th picks in 2021 draft.

I don’t think I need to do much convincing as to why the Cowboys would want to jump on this, picking twice in the first round is a luxury that many don’t have. However, if there was ever a year that a draft pick would be devalued, it would be 2021. Its difficult to scout, forget trying to do it with the restrictions that COVID introduced. Pittsburgh may look at a 20-spot slide as a wash mainly because they get to pick up a star player in the process.

For the Cowboys, this affords them the most cap room out of any of the trades and the highest compensation. Moving back into the 1st round might give them a shot at corners like Jaycee Horn, Tyson Campbell, or possibly Patrick Surtain II or they could gain a quality depth piece along the offensive line, especially with Tyron Smith looking like he’s starting to slow down.

This doesn’t preclude the Cowboys from trading out of this pick and taking a couple more draft picks in the middle rounds either. Point being, there would a ton of different ways to play this hand if they can get it.

2. Buffalo Bills

They should be banging down Jerry’s door on this one, the only thing this offense is missing is a legitimate threat to run the football. Continuing to rely on Josh Allen to burden the load (he accounted 25% of their total rushing yards and 50% of their TDs in 2020) is not a recipe for success with a QB, just ask Washington. The next couple of years might be Buffalo’s best opportunity to assert its dominance over the AFC East.

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Now, Buffalo isn’t exactly flush with a lot of room in the cap department, they are already projected to be about a $1M over it according to OTC. However, there are plenty of avenues the Bills can go down as they currently employ numerous high-priced veterans (i.e. Mario Addison, John Brown, and Vernon Butler) that could net them more than $20M in cap savings. Barring any contract restructuring, the Cowboys would probably want to wait until after June 1st to make this trade, to ensure that their dead cap hit is minimized to a shade over $4M. Which, in turn, makes the cap hit that Buffalo is taking on that much less, $9.6M. A bargain for a guy who even in his worst season still totaled over 1,000 all-purpose yards.

The compensation will be the big unknown here. On the one-side, Elliot is a potential game-changer for a franchise that was one bad defensive game-plan (no one on Kelce, really…) away from representing the AFC in Super Bowl. Now, not to burst any bubbles here, but this isn’t going to come close to sniffing what the Cowboys got for Herschel Walker back in the day, to me, even a single 1st rounder would be overpaying for Elliott. 

Truth be told, the Cowboys don’t have much leverage here outside of saying “Well we don’t NEED to trade him”, which holds true for now at least. What about in 2022 though? When the Cowboys, again assuming they resign Dak, will have nearly 60% of their cap tied up into less than 10% of their team. Sure, they’ll be able to cut Zeke at that point and get some relief against the cap, but they will take on a bigger dead cap hit ($10M) and receive no compensation for him.

So, if I’m Buffalo, I’m coming in with an offer of a 3rd round pick (94th) and RB Zack Moss. Yes I know, this doesn’t exactly elicit the “we should definitely part ways with him” response. Well, you have Bill O’Brien to thank for that as he set the market for veteran stars that are on big contracts in both Hopkins and Clowney last year. In reality, it’s a relatively fair trade for both teams, the Cowboys receive cap relief moving forward, an extra pick in the top 100, and a cost-controlled player at the position you just traded away. The Bills obviously get this generations top running back, albeit with some significant tread on his tires (over 1,600 touches in his first 5 seasons).

Cowboys Trade: Ezekiel Elliott

Cowboys Receive: 94th pick in 2021 draft and RB Zack Moss

3. Jacksonville Jaguars

The connection is simple, Urban Meyer recruited Zeke to Ohio State, Urban Meyer built an offense around Zeke at Ohio State, and Urban Meyer won a National Championship with Zeke at Ohio State in 2014.

Yes, they have James Robinson, and yes, the Jaguars have bigger holes to plug going into 2021 than upgrading at running back. However, it’s just too enticing to pair the best college QB prospect to come out in almost a decade with that 230-pound future Hall of Fame running back that helped take a lot of the pressure off Prescott in the early years. Not to mention that you have the makings of a solid trio for the next few seasons with Lawrence, Elliott, and Chark Jr. With Shad Khan’s willingness to spend money and 2 additional picks in the top 33, it’s not farfetched to see a turn-around as quick as the one they pulled off in 2017. 

Jacksonville could easily overpay to bring Zeke on-board as well, they pick 5 times in the first 3 rounds (1st, 25th, 33rd, 45th, 65th). It wouldn’t be outrageous to part with the 65th pick, they can easily trade down from any one of the previous 3 picks to recoup what they would have to give up to bring in Elliot. As for their cap situation, they have nearly $78M in room, so absorbing Elliot’s contract wouldn’t be an issue in the slightest. Dallas would also be inclined to trade him out of the conference so as to not expose their 31st ranked run defense and they don’t play Jacksonville until 2022. By then, their run defense could be a strength.

As for compensation, with so many holes to fill and the potential to stock up on high-quality, cheap talent in this year’s draft, I don’t see Jacksonville deviating much from Buffalo’s offer. They can offer a much higher selection at 65th overall. That high of a pick might be able to get it done on its own, especially compared to what others are going to have to offer, but let’s give Dallas no reason to pick up the phone for anyone else. Let’s throw an interior defensive lineman Taven Bryan into the mix.

Seriously, this offers HUGE upside for Dallas. They already have Tony Pollard at running back, who has shown to be more than capable, and there are a plethora of other veteran options out there that will come cheap, such as Adrian Peterson. Though Taven Bryan has been a big disappointment since falling to Jacksonville in the 2018 draft, he’s young and there’s still a lot of potential. Let’s not kid ourselves either, it’s not easy to motivate yourself when you play on the worst team in the league in Jacksonville, FL. Couple this with the fact that all the high-end talent (Campbell, Ngakoue, Ramsey, Bouye, etc.) left just as he joined the team. 

It still doesn’t answer the question as to why Dallas would be enticed by Bryan, outside of the fact that he’s an IDL and former 1st rounder. Well, how about the fact that it still doesn’t preclude you from dipping your toes into that market in free agency. He may not be a great every-down lineman, but surround him with guys like DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory, A.J. Bouye, and Jaylon Smith. That might just be the recipe to get him more one-on-one looks and work him into more twists/stunts up front that facilitate pressure.

Cowboys Trade: Ezekiel Elliott

Cowboys Receive: 65th Pick in 2021 draft and DL Taven Bryan

4. Baltimore Ravens

Alright bear with me here, now I know this rushing attack has put up 3000+ yards in back-to-back years, and I know JK Dobbins also averaged 6 yards a carry on 130+ attempts. Come on though, what other team out there can boast that they have a 60/40 split in favor of running? Just imagine the bind that defenses would be put into if they were staring at a backfield that featured two of the top runners in the league in Elliot and Lamar Jackson.

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So, what’s in it for the Cowboys? Why should they help out a Ravens team that is a contender in the AFC and a potential obstacle if Dallas somehow finds itself in the Super Bowl? Well, how about a 340-pound behemoth that has been one of the better run defenders of the last 5 years? The only way I’m moving Elliot to the Ravens is if I can get some immediate help in return. Brandon Williams has averaged a 79 PFF score in run defense over his 8-year career, I get that he’s 32 and most big guys don’t age particularly well. However, he could do a whole lot to sure up a run defense that gave up over 2,500 yards last season. 

You’ll receive him at a discount as well, no matter what Baltimore does with Williams, they are going to have to eat a shade under $7M in dead cap, which means his $14M cap hit for 2021 is more palatable. Also factor in that he’s on the last year of the deal, so no long-term financial liability. You’ve potentially finally found an interior lineman that can eat through double-teams and open up lanes for a guy like Jaylon Smith to make some impact plays. Especially if you take a look at how the Falcons were run under Dan Quinn, they often only rolled out three down linemen at a time. So, having a guy that has made a living out of taking on double-teams could only make sense.

There is a slight problem, he doesn’t offer you much in the pass-rush department. Okay, let me rephrase, he has zero impact on players that move away from him (less than 10 career sacks), but that’s what you pay DeMarcus Lawrence $25M/year to do, right?

In all seriousness though, he’s played in a multiple scheme in Baltimore that would often switch from a two-gap responsibility to a penetrating one-gap assignment. At worst, it’s just hard to move a guy who is heavy and has a low center of gravity. You don’t get the same kind of cap relief as you would in the above two scenarios, but you do get a pro-bowl-caliber veteran at your biggest positional need going into the offseason.

Ultimately, it’s best for the future of the franchise to trade Ezekiel Elliott now while teams will still be interested in taking on the contract and giving back something of value.

Cowboys Trade: Ezekiel Elliott

Cowboys Receive: 3rd round pick in 2022 and DL Brandon Williams

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