The window for NFL teams to apply their franchise or transition tag to their impending free agents officially opened on Tuesday. The Dallas Cowboys are sorting through their options with impending free agent running back Tony Pollard. The Cowboys could place the non-exclusive franchise tag on Pollard, which would pay him a fully-guaranteed $10.091 million salary in 2023. The tag represents a fallback option for the Cowboys, but they should attempt to sign Pollard to a multi-year extension instead.
The Cowboys are currently $7.6 million above the 2023 cap, per Spotrac. They’re tasked with becoming cap compliant before mid-March’s start of the new league year deadline. The Cowboys have work to do. Tagging Pollard would eliminate Dallas’ ability to lower Pollard’s 2023 cap charge. Signing Pollard to a long-term extension would allow the Cowboys to lower Pollard’s immediate cap hit, which is desirable given Dallas’ lackluster cap situation.
The future of Dallas’ running back position hangs in the balance. The Cowboys are expected to release Ezekiel Elliott, which would save them $10.9 million in cap space. The Cowboys own the 26th overall selection in the 2023 NFL Draft. Texas running back Bijan Robinson has been a popular mock draft target.
Additionally, we’re not convinced Pollard is in a position to command $10 million annually (the non-exclusive tag figure). Pollard posted career-highs in rushing yards (1,007) and touchdowns (9). Pollard also impacted the passing game at a career-best level, posting 39 receptions for 371 receiving yards and three touchdowns. But Pollard also suffered a fractured left fibula in Dallas’ postseason defeat to the San Francisco 49ers. It goes without saying that the timing couldn’t be worse for Pollard. A serious leg injury suffered less than two months before becoming an unrestricted free agent lessens Pollard’s leverage in negotiations. It’s an unfortunate but legitimate part of the business.
James Conner and Leonard Fournette signed identical three-year, $21 million ($7 million AAV) contracts during the 2021 offseason. Conner and Fournette are currently the 11th highest-paid running backs on an annual basis. There’s a large gap between that and the $12 million Joe Mixon and Aaron Jones earn annually as seventh and eighth highest-earning ball carriers. With all due respect to Pollard, he hasn’t elevated his status to bellcow territory like Mixon and Jones have.
The impending class of free-agent-to-be running backs is loaded with difference-making talents. As things stand, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Miles Sanders, Jamaal Williams, and David Montgomery are among the names that are set to join Pollard in free agency. A wealth of availability should also hinder Pollard, who should feel comfortable signing a three-year extension worth $8-9 million annually.
The non-exclusive tag (the most commonly utilized tag) would allow Pollard’s representation to entertain potential outside offers. Dallas would reserve the option to match the offer or to receive two first-round selections from the competing franchise in exchange for Pollard’s services. No such scenario would come to fruition given the devalued nature of ball carriers in today’s NFL.
Dallas faces a fascinating decision regarding Pollard’s future. They could opt to tag Pollard and make him earn a long-term contract, especially since he’s coming off a serious injury. Assuming Pollard’s medicals check out, the Cowboys would be wise to make a two or three-year commitment to Pollard.
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