On the surface, paying Elliott, a two-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in touches (381) and rushing yards (1,434) in 2018 (and in rushing yards in 2016), makes sense. But a deeper look suggests that this will be a waste of precious cap dollars for the Cowboys.
Let’s start at the macro level and acknowledge that the NFL has transformed into a passing league. In 2002, the first year the league expanded to 32 franchises, teams averaged 27.5 rushing attempts per game. That figure peaked in 2003 at 28.3 rushes per game but has been on a steady decline ever since, with teams averaging 25.9 rushes per game in 2018, the lowest in pro football history.
Team spending on running backs has seen a similar decline. According to Spotrac, the average cap hit for a running back in 2013, the first year data is available, was $6.2 million, accounting for almost five percent of all available cap dollars. In 2019, the cap hit for a running back dropped to $5.7 million, just three percent of available cap dollars. Spending on quarterbacks, meanwhile, rose from an average of $9.8 million (less than eight percent of cap) in 2013 to $16.9 million (8.4 percent) in 2019.
Why is positional spending at running back on the decline? Because rushing is not nearly as important to winning games in the NFL as passing. According to data researcher Ed Feng, 85 percent of playoff teams from 1998 through 2017 had a positive pass efficiency, while only 58 percent of playoff teams during that same period had a positive team rush efficiency. As football analyst Chase Stewart wrote, “teams can move the chains and drain the clock with the short passing game,” devaluing the running game even more. And as Jeremy Arkes, an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School, wrote in a paper, the conventional wisdom “that controlling the running game is the key to winning in the NFL may be a misguided belief,” and NFL teams “have greater success by focusing on the passing games, both offensively and defensively.”
But beyond the changing nature of the NFL, Elliott’s own production when compared to similar star backs doesn’t justify his newly acquired riches. Yes, the 24-year-old has had a solid start to his career, but that production is more replaceable than commonly thought.
Football Outsiders ranked Elliott as the ninth most-valuable back of 2018 per Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement and 18th per Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. That means eight rushers had more total value than Elliott last season, and 17 produced more value per play. (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement compares Elliott’s performance to replacement level and adjusts it for situation and opponent.)
Running backs at the top of this list include Gurley (who scored a league-leading 21 total touchdowns in 2018), Derrick Henry of the Titans (whose 4.2 yards per carry after contact in 2018 was second in the NFL) and the Saints’ Alvin Kamara (whose 18 total touchdowns in 2018 were second to Gurley). Gurley, Henry and the Chargers’ Melvin Gordon make up the top three in Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement, which represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations.
Where does this difference come from? On red-zone carries in 2018, Elliott produced a first down or touchdown slightly more than a third of the time (10 first downs and five touchdowns on 39 carries). That success rate ranked him just 28th out of 47 qualified running backs, per data from TruMedia. The league average was closer to 50 percent. Gordon converted 18 of 24 red zone carries (75 percent) into a touchdown or first down in 2018. Gurley was at 67 percent and Kamara was at 63 percent. Henry was also above-average at 53 percent.
Other metrics agree. The game charters at Pro Football Focus ranked Elliott 14th among 23 running backs that played at least half of their team’s rushing snaps last year, and that takes into account the 77 catches for 567 yards and three touchdowns he produced out of the backfield. The Giants’ Saquon Barkley was PFF’s highest-rated running back of the year after the rookie led the league in yards from scrimmage (2,028). Other running backs ahead of Elliott include Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers, Kamara, Gordon, Gurley and Kareem Hunt, then with the Chiefs.
According to TruMedia, Dallas scored 2.2 points more than expected per 100 snaps in 2016 after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each of Elliott’s carries. That dropped to 1.1 fewer points than expected per 100 snaps in 2017, and dropped again in 2018 to 5.5 fewer points than expected per 100 snaps. The drop was even more stark on red-zone carries: 30.3 points more than expected per 100 attempts in 2016, 22.2 in 2017 and 3.9 in 2018.
Elliott’s decline can also been seen in traditional metrics. He averaged 108.7 rushing yards per game in 2016, 98.3 yards per game in 2017 and 95.6 yards per game in 2018. Elliott’s touchdown rate has also declined two years in a row; he scored once every 22 touches in 2016, once every 29 touches in 2017 and once every 42 touches in 2018. He also had a higher rate of explosive plays of 20 yards or longer from the line of scrimmage in 2016 (once every 21 touches) than he did in 2017 (once every 30 touches) or 2018 (once every 25 touches).
To recap, the Cowboys just spent a historic amount of money on a running back who is, at best, average at the most critical components of his job, and at worst, below-average in qualities that contribute to a successful running game. And they did so at the same time that the league is paying less money to running backs, and that NFL success is ever more linked to strong passing games. How 'bout them Cowboys?