With Ezekiel Elliott's contract done, Cowboys bank on early success

IRVING, Texas -- One of the big critiques the Dallas Cowboys faced when selecting Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick was based on the shaming of running backs in recent years.

The notion that the position has become devalued is clichéd now. It rolls off the tongue the way Earl Campbell, Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith rolled down the field on their way to Hall of Fame careers.

On Wednesday, Elliott signed a four-year, $24.9 million deal that is fully guaranteed and included a $16.3 million signing bonus.

The biggest contracts signed by free-agent running backs this offseason belong to Doug Martin, who re-upped with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at five years, $35.75 million; Chris Ivory, who joined the Jacksonville Jaguars with a five-year, $32 million deal; and Lamar Miller, whom the Houston Texans signed to a four-year, $26 million deal.

The guaranteed portion of the contracts given to Martin, Ivory and Miller is $39 million.

Miller seemed to be the apple of a lot of Cowboys fans' eyes before free agency began, but Dallas was never going to pay top dollar to any of those running backs.

While Martin, Ivory and Miller have NFL track records, Elliott has something they don't have: youth. He doesn't turn 21 until the week before the Cowboys leave for training camp in Oxnard, California.

Martin is 27 years old with 868 carries. Ivory is 28 with 883 carries. Miller is 25 with 638 carries.

"Running backs, after they have had some wear and tear on them, may not be the right investment as they go forward," executive vice president Stephen Jones said after the Cowboys picked Elliott.

"It is real easy to sit back and say, 'Well, the value of the running back is coming this way financially in terms of cap dollars.' We actually have done some work and believe that some of their best years, the great ones, are in their first five years. So you are maybe getting the best part of the running back in his first five years versus the second contract."

Smith ran for 7,183 yards in his first five years and 6,780 in his next five. Eric Dickerson had 8,256 yards in his first five years and 4,912 in his next five. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 7,361 yards in his first five years and 6,043 in his second five.

Adrian Peterson ran for 6,752 yards in his first five seasons and has 4,923 in his last four, though he missed 15 games in 2014 after being placed on the commissioner's exempt list. Frank Gore ran for roughly the same amount in his first five years to his next five (5,561 to 5,512). Steven Jackson had 99 more yards in the second five years of his career when compared to the first.

Marshawn Lynch had more yards in his final four seasons (4,570) than he had in his first five (4,542).

"You get a back of this level, frankly as a running back, right in the prime of his career, you can literally hit the ground running," Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "You don't have a year or two of acclimation that you might have at other positions."

The Cowboys hold a fifth-year option on Elliott's contract. It is difficult to project that 2020 figure, but the estimate would be around $9 million to $11 million, considering the cap is going up each year.

For the sake of this post let's call it $10 million, which would put Elliott's entire rookie contract at five years, $34.9 million with the option fully guaranteed only for injury.

If all goes as planned with Elliott, the Cowboys could sign him to an extension after the 2018 season, the way they signed Tyron Smith, their first-rounder in 2011, to a long-term extension before the 2014 season.

The Cowboys took a chance in drafting Elliott at No. 4. They believe it is a five-year risk worth taking and not as costly as a free-agent running back.

"Sometimes you are getting the best part of him when you get him right out of college and they are ready to roll," Stephen Jones said. "One of the things about Ezekiel is that not only is he a great running back, which we all equate to running, but he brings so many other things to the table.

"He is so well-rounded, about as well-rounded as we've seen in a while in terms of catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting the quarterback, which we all know in this room is so important to us with Tony [Romo]. He just brings so much to the table right there."