FRISCO, Texas — Ezekiel Elliott admits it was important to him to be the highest-paid running back in the NFL.
“Because I believe I’m the best,” the Dallas Cowboys star said Wednesday, not long after his first practice since signing a six-year, $90 million extension that includes $50 million guaranteed, according to sources.
Todd Gurley of the Los Angeles Rams had been the highest-paid running back with $45 million guaranteed and a $14.375 million average salary. Elliott, 24, was under contract through 2020. His total compensation now through 2026 will be more than $100 million.
The high of signing the deal was short-lived after Elliott went through his first workouts with his teammates in searing heat and humidity in preparation for Sunday’s season opener against the New York Giants.
“The heat was a little rough today, but it’s air conditioning in AT&T Stadium,” Elliott said jokingly. “So I mean, I’m just going to keep seeing how I feel the rest of this week.”
Elliott spent most of his summer working out in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, attempting to simulate football drills as much as he could with a strength coach, athletic trainer, other current players and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.
“He’s in very good shape,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “He looks good, but he hasn’t practiced with pro football players, so we’ll just see how he fits back in. But he’s a quick study. He’s a smart guy, got excellent football IQ. So we’ll just see where he is and adjust accordingly as we go.”
The Cowboys will have a roster exemption for Elliott this week, but the team would need to make a move on the 53-man roster for him to play. Elliott said comparing his return to the team now to his return from a six-game suspension in 2017 is different because he had a full offseason program, training camp and eight games of action before he accepted the league’s punishment.
But he also said he could handle a large workload Sunday.
“I think I’m just going to approach it as a normal week. You still have to be fresh by Sunday,” Elliott said. “It is a long season. So don’t want to try to overdo it and risk injury.”
The Cowboys will monitor Elliott this week and hope that he’s honest with where he is physically. He returned to the final two games of the 2017 season and had 51 carries for 200 yards.
“You just try your best to gauge them and try to put the player, the team in the best position,” Garrett said. “Obviously he was with us all throughout the offseason. He missed training camp. Really hasn’t played in preseason games in the past, so there’s a lot of different factors to weigh.
“The biggest thing you do, is you get him back in here and you get him back to work. You get feedback from him as to how he’s doing. You watch him and you make your best judgment in how you want to use him going forward.”
When Elliott went to bed Tuesday, he did not believe a deal would be done in time for him to practice Wednesday, but he had not yet thought about the possibility of missing regular-season games.
Elliott received a call that a deal was agreed upon around 7 a.m. ET.
Not an hour later, he was at The Star, seeing his teammates for the first time since June.
“Guys are just excited to see him. It was less about, like, ‘Oh, thank God you’re here. Thank God you got your deal done,'” center Travis Frederick said. “It was, ‘Man, I’ve missed you. I haven’t seen you in a month.’ It’s just weird not having him around. … It’s like one of your brothers has shipped off to do a semester abroad and all of a sudden has come back. It’s just a good, reuniting feeling.”
Elliott said he felt support from teammates during his holdout, which helped keep him resolute.
“Calls, text … I mean, one of my teammates told me don’t come back without a deal,” Elliott said. “I mean, just support like that from this group of guys meant everything. It definitely would have been harder if things were the opposite.”
At the time of signing, Elliott was guaranteed $28 million. The final $22 million in guaranteed money comes in his 2021 and 2022 base salaries on the fifth day of each league year.
Since joining the Cowboys as the fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft, Elliott leads the NFL with 4,048 rushing yards — despite missing eight games. Gurley is second with 3,441 yards. In 2018, Elliott joined Herschel Walker as the only Cowboys running backs to have more than 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in the same season.
He is the fifth player since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 to lead the league in rushing twice in his first three seasons. Cowboys Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, also accomplished the feat in 1991 and 1992.
During the course of negotiations, owner and general manager Jerry Jones said teams did not need rushing champions to be successful and joked, ‘Zeke who?’ after rookie Tony Pollard had an impressive showing in the preseason.
“It’s just negotiations. You’ve got to get through it,” Elliott said. “We’re good.”
Elliott has not spoken with Jones since the deal came to fruition. The owner was in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday. They will likely talk soon, with an official news conference coming Thursday with Jones back in North Texas.
The Cowboys continue their quest to achieve their preseason goal of signing Elliott, Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper to contract extensions, potentially before Sunday’s opener. Even with Elliott in the fold, a source told ESPN’s Ed Werder that the team never lost focus on negotiations with Prescott and confirmed the urgency has been renewed in recent days. The Cowboys also maintained ongoing dialogue with Cooper and his agent, although a source said nothing appears imminent between the sides.
Elliott, meanwhile, met his goal to be the highest-paid running back. Now the goal is to win the Super Bowl.
“I mean, I’ve just got to take it to the next level now,” Elliott said. “That’s what I’m trying to say.”