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Ezekiel Elliott’s run as a Dallas Cowboy is over. He leaves a legacy of pile-driving runs, league-leading rushing totals and a 2-4 record in the NFL playoffs.

News broke March 15, the first day free agent signings can become official, that the All-Pro running back would part ways with the only franchise he’s ever known. Elliott will be designated a post-June 1 release, saving Dallas nearly $11 million in much-needed cap space. This cut sends the veteran to free agency coming off his least productive year as a pro. The former fourth overall pick rushed for 876 yards on a mere 3.8 yards per carry in his age 27 season.

It’s not fair to remember Elliott by the tired-legs runner we saw in 2022. At his peak — a 2016-2019 stretch that covered his first four seasons in the league — he was a singular force. Elliott ran for more than 5,600 yards in that span, more than 1,100 more than second-place Todd Gurley even though he was suspended for six games in 2017 due to accusations of domestic violence.

He averaged nearly 100 rushing yards each time he took the field for the Cowboys. His greatness over those four years is indisputable.

Elliott was the best case scenario for a running back drafted in the top five picks. He’s run for more yards than anyone drafted in that position in the last two decades. He was a genuine superstar at his peak and remains one of the NFL’s most recognizable players.

But Elliott could never save the Cowboys. He led the league in rushing yards per game in each of his first three seasons and made his last Pro Bowl in the fourth. This excellence manifested into a single postseason victory — a Wild Card win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2018.

That’s not a knock on Zeke. It’s a knock on positional value. As a running back, Elliott racked up 1,358 total touches in those four years, far more than anyone else in the league. He gained more yards from scrimmage than anyone. He affected the game more than any other running back.

This wasn’t enough to make Dallas great. When teams managed to slow him down, the Cowboys lacked the resources elsewhere to carve a path to the Super Bowl.

Elliott averaged a robust 5.0 yards per carry in his team’s wins over those four years but just 3.9 in defeat. Without his tailback clicking, Dak Prescott’s passer rating fell from 112.2 in victory to 76.0 in losses. Great defenses found a way to bottle up the run game and Dallas, even with Dez Bryant and then Amari Cooper in the lineup, lacked the firepower to compensate for that.

The fact Prescott was so much better when Elliott was flying is a testament to the tailback’s skill, but the deluge of talented running backs across the league suggests Dallas could have found a suitable replacement without burning the capital of a top five draft pick. When the wear and tear of all those high-usage seasons took a toll on Elliott he wasn’t supplanted by another Day 1 draftee; he instead took a backseat to 2019 fourth rounder Tony Pollard.

Elliott was drafted fourth overall in 2016. The players drafted in the fifth through eighth spots all wound up first-team All-Pros for at least one season. Would the Cowboys have been more successful with Jalen Ramsey at cornerback, DeForest Buckner at defensive end or Jack Conklin at right tackle and a Day 3 pick like DeAndre Washington or Devontae Booker at running back? Or was Prescott’s success on days where Elliott shined a sigil of his worth? Either way, we know those seasons resulted in plenty of sound and fury and then nothing beyond a low rumble in the playoffs.

It’s also meaningful that those other top 10 picks continue to play at a high level while Elliott’s efficiency has waned to the point where the Cowboys deemed him expendable rather than pay him nearly $17 million this season. And while all three of the All-Pros mentioned above have changed teams, Ramsey returned two first round picks in his premier trade and Buckner brought back one. There was value even in their departure — the kind of value Jerry Jones probably wouldn’t have been able to find in a deal, even back in 2019.

We’ve talked a lot about how special Elliott was on the field. Let’s take a look at the other running backs drafted in the top five since 2003, sorted by number of 1,000-yard seasons in their careers to date:

  • Cedric Benson (three)
  • Saquon Barkley (three)
  • Darren McFadden (two)
  • Reggie Bush (two)
  • Leonard Fournette (two)
  • Cadillac Williams (one)
  • Ronnie Brown (one)
  • Trent Richardson (zero)

If you’re drafting a top five running back, you’re looking for a dominant player capable of taking over games and consistently producing for years. But only two of the other eight top five tailbacks have at least three 1,000-yard seasons to their credit. McFadden was drafted by the Raiders, but one of his best years came after the Cowboys added him as a free agent. Both Bush’s top seasons came long after he’d left the Saints.

This is all a long way of saying first round running backs are a gamble, but top five running backs are almost never worth it. Elliott was the exception that lived up to expectations and he couldn’t make the Cowboys more than a guest star in the NFC playoff bracket.

This is all bad news for Bijan Robinson, who is one of the most complete running back prospects to enter the draft in years. But it’s good news for teams in the middle to back end of the selection order, like say the Cowboys — who have Pollard under contract through only 2023 thanks to the franchise tag. Robinson might be a wonderful player, but the nature of his position means there’s better value in the bargain bin of late-round picks or a crop of free agent tailbacks that’s been slow to develop this spring.

Robinson’s star will likely burn bright and short against the backdrop of a sky filled with light, forcing NFL general managers to regard his draft slot with caution. In that regard, Elliott was a supernova.