Dallas Cowboys

Hold out questions with Ezekiel Elliott and DeMarcus Lawrence loom ahead for Cowboys

To the delight of everyone, the Pro Bowl has come to an end, which means the Dallas Cowboys can officially shift their focus to 2019.

And while finalizing the coaching staff is the first item on the agenda — possibly as soon as this week — bigger offseason concerns are looming on the horizon.

Vice president Stephen Jones has said that the Cowboys main priorities are getting a new deal for free agent defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence and possible contract extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott, receiver Amari Cooper and running back Ezekiel Elliott.

None of these negotiation will be easy.

But there are two players that could present bigger problems than the others. The longer the Cowboys wait, the more they chance themselves to holdouts from Lawrence and Elliott, according to sources.

Lawrence is out of his contract but if the Cowboys don’t get a deal done with him and franchise him for a second straight season, they shouldn’t expect him to show up for any of the offseason activities or training camp.

As Lawrence said last week on Twitter from the Pro Bowl to the Cowboys, “Your move.”

“The Cowboys already know what it is,” Lawrence said. “They know where I want to be. I got big goals, not just for me, but as a team and as an organization. I love being a Cowboy.”

And the Cowboys say they love him and want him to stay. He recorded 10.5 sacks in 2018 after notching 14.5 in 2017.

“Certainly a huge priority for us to get him signed. We want to sign him up long-term,” Jones said at the Senior Bowl last week. “I think he’s going to play this season at 27 and still be a young player and it’s still in front of him in terms of him improving and getting better.”

Of course, what’s also true is the Cowboys have not talked about a contract extension since last March when they were millions apart in negotiations, prompting them to place the $17.1 million franchise tag on him.

A second tag would cost them $20.5 million and draw the ire of Lawrence, who played nice and didn’t make waves following the tag in 2017. He has no intention of playing under the tag for a second straight year.

Lawrence needs shoulder surgery. There is a good chance he will wait on having the surgery until after he gets a new deal.

But a second tag is a legitimate option for the Cowboys if they can’t get a deal done with Lawrence before the March 5 deadline.

Elliott is trickier because they have him under contract for two more years.

But he wants and is deserving of a new deal now after his second NFL rushing title in three years in the league.

The Rams set the stage with a four-year, $60 million contract extension for running back Todd Gurley after his third season. The deal included a $20 million signing bonus and $45 million in guaranteed money.

Elliott is due $3.58 million in 2019, and the Cowboys will certainly exercise the fifth-year option in his contract, guaranteeing him more than $10 million in 2020.

But it’s a law of diminishing returns for Elliott after that because of his high usage in the Cowboys offense. He has 1,003 touches since 2016, including 304 rushes and a career-high 77 catches in 2018.

His importance to the Cowboys offense is not going to go down.

It’s important to him to maximize his earning potential now rather than two years from now when the carries could potentially start taking a toll and the Cowboys could also essentially lock him up with franchise tags for two seasons.

Elliott ran into a lot of stacked defenses in 2018 and still won the rushing title.

If the Cowboys stack the contract leverage against him this offseason and don’t sign him to a new deal, he may be training again in Cabo San Lucas as he did during his 2017 suspension.

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Clarence E. Hill Jr. has covered the Dallas Cowboys as a beat writer/columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram since 1997. That includes just two playoff wins, six coaches and countless controversies from the demise of the dynasty teams of the 1990s through the rollercoaster years of the Tony Romo era until Jason Garrett’s process Cowboys.