As most expected going into the offseason, the Dallas Cowboys have placed their franchise tag on running back Tony Pollard. The one-year salary for running backs this year is $10.09 million, all of which counts against the Cowboys salary cap in 2023.
Coming off his best season yet in the NFL, Pollard’s four-year rookie contract ended and he was set to enter free agency on a high. Tony set new career marks in virtually every category in 2022, including 1,007 rushing yards, 371 receiving yards, and 12 total touchdowns. This production was all the more impressive considering the still considerable amount of touches that Ezekiel Elliott gets in the Cowboys’ offense. But Pollard left no doubt last year who Dallas’ most effective ball carrier is.
The non-exclusive franchise tag secures Pollard for the 2023 season. No team is going to surrender two first-round picks for any running back, let alone a speedster who turns 26 in April. But for the Cowboys, the $10.09 million cap hit for next season isn’t that bad compared to what some other RBs cost their current teams.
Over the last few years, backs like Elliott, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara have signed contracts averaging $15-$16 million annually. But these appear to be the dinosaurs of RB contracts as the devaluation of the position throughout the league is progressing. Just yesterday, rumors circulated that the Tennessee Titans are looking to unload Derrick Henry’s $16 million cap hit.
Tony Pollard 2023 salary comps
Compared to these, Pollard counting $10 million against the cap is tolerable. He’s one of the most explosive running backs in football, averaging over five yards per carry the last two years and being a constant threat to take a play to the endzone. But while the Cowboys should be thrilled to have him back for another season, their work at running back is far from over.
This sharp increase in Pollard’s compensation, up about $9 million from 2022, puts the Cowboys’ total cap dollars at running back to over $27 million for next season. This is roughly 12% of the 2023 salary cap. It’s a lot for any one position other than quarterback to be eating up, let alone the RB position.
This should only be a temporary issue, though, as Dallas is sure to make some move on Ezekiel Elliott’s contract and the $16.7 million he’s scheduled to count against the cap this year. Whether it is through a mutually agreed upon pay cut or the Cowboys making Zeke a cap casualty, there’s little chance he will occupy that much of the Cowboys’ cap in 2023 for much longer. In fact, a move is likely coming sometime in the next week as Dallas gets ready for the start of free agency on March 15th.
The Cowboys may not be done with Tony Pollard yet, either. Many times, the franchise tag is used temporarily while the team and the player continue to work out a long-term deal. The two sides have until July 15th to work out a contract before Pollard is locked into playing under the franchise tag amount in 2023 and then becoming a free agent again next year. If Dallas can get Pollard on a new multi-year deal, it would likely reduce his cap hit for at least this season.
Or is this the final ride?
However, sometimes the franchise tag also serves more like a one-year rental. We’re likely seeing that play out at the Cowboys’ tight end position, where Dalton Schultz’s time in Dallas appears to be coming to an end. After spending 2022 on the franchise tag, Schultz is re-entering free agency with intriguing young prospects like Jake Ferguson and Peyton Hendershot poised to move up the TE depth chart.
Could Tony Pollard be facing a similar fate? The Cowboys may very well be looking at 2023 as a one-year situation for Pollard, making him their featured back but also working on drafting his replacement. If Dallas does spend a mid-round pick at running back this April, as they did last year at tight end with Ferguson, it could signal the beginning of the end of Pollard’s Cowboys career.
For now, the franchise tag at least makes Tony Pollard’s return in 2023 a virtual certainty. The Cowboys’ focus now shifts to Ezekiel Elliott’s future and what else Dallas may do at running back, but at least our best weapon at the position is in place for the upcoming season.