The Dallas Cowboys have never shied from the fact they wanted to keep Tony Pollard this offseason. The free agent running back was coming off a career season for the Cowboys and was instrumental to their 12-5 campaign.
Posting 1,007 rushing yards and 371 receiving yards with 12 combined touchdowns, a case could be made that Pollard was Dallas’ offensive MVP in 2022. For an offense lacking in overall team speed, keeping a game-breaker like Pollard in the fold another season has been a high priority for the Cowboys. But what about beyond that?
Unable to come to a multi-year agreement, Dallas applied the franchise tag to their star running back. Provided the tag is eventually signed and not rescinded, it ensures Pollard will remain a Cowboy for 2023.
While his retention is comforting for an offense already starved for playmakers, his $10,091,000 million cap hit is far from ideal. At a time when running back values are trending downward, dedicating eight figures to a single running back isn’t exactly cutting-edge cap management.
If a long-term deal can be made, the cap hit in 2023 can be reduced significantly. Money can be spread throughout the length of the deal and void years can stretch it beyond. Since both sides were looking for a long-term deal before the tag was issued, it can be safely assumed that both sides are still open to the idea.
But is that the wise move?
What are the merits for a running back?
Long-term deal: Pros
If the Cowboys can lock Pollard up on a multi-year deal they will reap two significant rewards:
A smaller immediate cap hit
Stability is comforting because it’s easier to plan and build around. If Dallas knows they have Pollard signed for the foreseeable future, they can design the offense to play to his strengths and surround him with complementary players to cover his weaknesses.
They can design their blocking scheme to get Pollard in space and one that gives him opportunities to stretch runs outside. They can target a short-yardage running back in the draft knowing the two runners will serve complementary roles to each other.
Without a long-term deal, they need to keep the big picture in mind. They can’t build the offense around their star player because the star may not be in Dallas this time next year.
Then there’s the cap hit. $10 million is a lot of money to digest for a running back in the year 2023. A long-term deal can cut that figure by roughly three-quarters this season, giving the Cowboys more flexibility to upgrade elsewhere.
The money saved could even be funneled to bring in an upper-tier receiver, giving Dallas the ultimate bang for their buck.
Eventually, much of the money comes due on a multi-year deal. But with the salary cap expanding year over year, Pollard’s cap percentage will presumably decrease. Extra years can be added to make a deal on paper appear to be much larger than a deal in reality.
A long-term deal can give Dallas the most short-term flexibility along with some long-term peace of mind.
Long-term deal: Cons
The cons should be obvious. Running back is generally regarded as a low value position in today’s NFL, whose success is more closely tied to blocking than individual performance. There’s a reason that, aside from kickers and punters, running backs are the lowest compensated franchise tag this season. Teams don’t value individual runners very highly.
Pollard proved in 2022, he’s far above replacement level. Ranking No. 7 in rushing yards over expected (RYOE), Pollard added an average of 0.47 yards per run when the blocking and the context of the play are taken into consideration.
But just because Pollard was a star in 2022 doesn’t mean he’s going to be a star in the future. The falloff at the running back position is steep and sudden. Most runners see a significant decline already by their fifth season.
Tej Seth at Pro Football Focus studied the matter and found aside from a small uptick in the sixth season, the seasons following the initial four produced a negative RYOE (they performed less than what a replacement level player would be expected). Keep in mind, only good running backs get deals to play 5-10 seasons. Their teams believed they could sustain their efficiency, but the numbers show that’s rarely the case.
At best, paying a running back on a second contract is dangerous and controversial. At worst, it’s a catastrophic mismanagement of cap space. History suggests even the greatest looking running backs fall off after their first four seasons so any commitment beyond is to gamble against the odds.
Working in Pollard’s favor is the limited wear and tear he has accumulated as a professional. With only 510 career rushing attempts, Pollard is not the typical top-of-the-market running back looking for a second deal.
PFF found a steady decline in RYOE beginning at around the 1,500 carry mark, indicating Pollard has plenty of tread left on his tires. It’s always dangerous behavior to say “Player A is going to be the exception to the rule” but there are logical reasons to believe Pollard could be just that.
If a rookie running back can produce 85-90 percent of Pollard’s output at 10 percent of the cost, isn’t the rookie the better option? If the money saved can go to improve the offensive line and/or receivers, wouldn’t the added production make up, or even exceed, Pollard’s output?
This is something the Cowboys should be asking themselves as they work on a long-term deal.
A solid case can be made that the two sides should meet in the middle and Dallas should aim for a 2-year deal rather than repeat the mistake they made with Ezekiel Elliott. Although it’s unlikely Pollard would accept something of that nature since he’s looking to maximize his value while his stock is high, and who can really blame him?
At the end of the day, this leads right back to where it all began: the franchise tag.
There are mounds of evidence to suggest that signing running backs to long-term deals is, more often than not, a poor decision. While Pollard could be the exception to the rule, playing “the exception game” is dangerous business.
Story originally appeared on Cowboys Wire