Dallas Cowboys

Detailing Zeke Elliott’s educated holdout, meeting with Emmitt Smith, journey to deal

It has been one week since Ezekiel Elliott boarded a plane in Cabo and headed home to sign a six-year, $90 million contract extension, including a whopping $50 million in guaranteed money, with the Dallas Cowboys.

Elliott secured his goal of becoming the richest running back in NFL history while also helping the Cowboys stay flexible in the cap to continue to sign other players, including the possibly of quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper in the coming days.

Most important to the Cowboys were the cash flow and the cap room in the first two years of the deal. They got that with a $7.5 million signing bonus and a $752,137 base salary in 2019, while carrying a cap hit of $6,339,655 in the first year.

In Year 2, the base salary is just $6.8 million with a cap hit of $10.9 million. He also gets a $13 million option bonus on March 22, 2020.

He has base salaries of $9.6 million in 2021, $12.4 million in 2022, $10.9 million in 2023, $10 million in 2024, $15.4 million in 2025 and $16.6 million in 2026.

The first two years are fully guaranteed at signing, totaling $28 million, including a signing bonus and 2019 salary, 2020 salary and 2020 option bonus.

The base salaries of $9.6 million and $12.4 million in 2021 and 2022, respectively, become fully guaranteed on the fifth day of the league years in 2020 and 2021.

That the Cowboys committed to salary guarantees in 2021 and 2022 a year early is a coup for Elliott and his representatives at Alliance Sports Agency, namely Rocky Arceneaux, Frank Salazano and chief contract negotiator Brian Hannula.

Elliott essentially got $50.2 million guaranteed over the first four years of the deal.

“Just a journey to get there,” Elliott said. “From where I started and finally being here and what I have to do; I’ve just got to take it to the next level now.”

That’s how it was finished.

But let’s go back to the beginning and chronicle how they got there.

Arceneuax said he was holding out not on the Cowboys but rather the protesting collective bargaining agreement and rookie fifth-year option that punishes running backs.

It had Elliott, a two-time rushing champ and focal point of the Cowboys offense, making less than every player in the top 10 of the 2016 NFL Draft over the final two years of his rookie deal, including Saints cornerback Eli Apple.

He felt owner Jerry Jones would have paid Elliott whatever the price if not for the constraints of the rookie deal and the perceived deflation of the running back market, which is why the negotiations never got contentious between the two sides.

The plan started taking shape immediately after the 2018 season when the Cowboys were making it clear they were planning to focus on contract extensions for Prescott, Cooper and defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, while tabling Elliott to 2019.

It was at the 2019 Pro Bowl when things came into focus.

That included Elliott participating in the offseason program, OTAs and minicamp with no intentions of showing up for training camp without a new contract.

Arnceneaux used the same strategy with tackle Donald Penn and the Raiders in 2017 when he went through the offseason program and minicamp before a 26-day camp holdout. Penn ended up getting a two-year, $21 million contract extension.

The plan with Elliott almost blew up because of an incident in Las Vegas in May when he allegedly pushed down a security guard during a music festival. They had no intention of holding out if he had received discipline by the NFL or was charged by the Las Vegas Police Department.

The NFL was first to give him a pass and then Las Vegas decided to take no action, resulting in a celebratory phone call from Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones that turned sour when he was initially informed of the plan to hold out without a new deal.

This holdout was thought out and calculated.

Elliott was educated on every step of the process, including all the fines up through Week 2 of the season.

Most interesting is that Arceneaux had Elliott have dinner with Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith at Del Frisco’s the night before the Cowboys flew to training camp without him.

Smith emboldened Elliott with perspective from his own holdout in 1993 that lasted through the first two games of the season before the Cowboys relented and made him the highest paid running back in football at the time.

Ironically, it was Elliott’s idea to return to Cabo San Lucas and the Diamante Resort, a five-star golf community overlooking the Pacific Ocean with a private beach to train during the holdout because it worked so well for him during the six-game suspension in 2017.

And that’s when things got interesting as Hannula’s first offer to the Cowboys left them speechless and had them thinking it was a misprint.

It was for top wide receiver money - think more than Odell Beckham but under the $22 million annually that Julio Jones just got from the Atlanta Falcons - and $110 million in total to make him the highest paid player in Cowboys history.

It was a detailed offer that supported every dollar by metrics and his importance to the team even though he knew they were going to have to come down.

The Cowboys offered a contract that would make him the second highest paid running back in the league, behind Todd Gurley and the four-year, $57.5 million contract he signed with the Los Angeles Rams last year, including a $21 million signing bonus, $45 million guaranteed, and an average annual salary of $14.375 million.

It then became a game of chicken with Elliott and his representatives believing they had already won the initial battle as the Cowboys were addressing his deal now, rather than next year as planned.

Now, it was about getting more than Gurley with the target dropping to $16 million annually. It’s a number they believe they would have easily gotten if Le’Veon Bell had played on his $14.5 million franchise tag last year rather than sit out and get $13.1 million annually from the Jets to theoretically bring the market down.

Elliott was initially hurt by owner Jerry Jones’ ‘Zeke Who’ joke. And he had to be kept from responding on social media.

While Jones never got involved in the negotiations, there was constant communication with Hannula and Cowboys contract expert Adam Prasifka.

Elliott also made it clear that he didn’t want to get in the way of deals that went to linebacker Jaylon Smith and tackle La’el Collins during his holdout.

The breakthrough came on Aug. 29 with a text from the Cowboys with a new offer, including $45 million guaranteed, that finally put Elliott over Gurley in all metrics.

But the cash flow was back-loaded and it was a no deal. Progress, however, had been made.

So much so that the staff at the Diamante threw Elliott a going away party on Monday.

He got on the plane on Tuesday with hopes of quickly consummating a deal.

Things broke down and harsh words were spoken with the Cowboys telling them to “go back to Cabo.”

Elliott admittedly went to bed Tuesday night not expecting a deal getting done.

The frustrations go so bad that there was discussion of simply playing on the fourth year of the rookie deal.

But one final offer was made at 3:50 a.m., which was accepted at 4:45 a.m., and it included another $5 million in guaranteed money.

It was certain evidence to Arceneaux that Wednesday was the Cowboys deadline and they never had any intentions of letting Elliott miss a game.

A groggy Elliott was at the Cowboys facility by 7 a.m., practiced for three days and played in Sunday’s 35-17 season-opening victory against the New York Giants, rushing 13 times for 53 yards and a touchdown.

Elliott said it was one of the toughest things he has been through and credited the trust he had in his agents.

“There were ups and downs,” Elliott said. “Some days it seemed closer than others. I mean, a lot of times I felt like we were getting close then it kinda regressed. I had to trust that they were doing the right thing. I wouldn’t have been able to get through it without them.”

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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.
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