FRISCO, Texas (AP) – Ezekiel Elliott was finishing the early stretching at the first practice since ending his long holdout with the Dallas Cowboys when the star running back was called to the front of the group.
Cheers rose from teammates Wednesday before Elliott led a brief set of jumping jacks to get the workout moving again.
The two-time NFL rushing champion is back with the Cowboys thanks to a new $90 million, six-year extension that makes Elliott the highest-paid player at his position – and just in time for the regular season. Dallas hosts the New York Giants on Sunday.
“It was really hard. Super hard,” Elliott said of an absence that was in its 41st day, covering all of training camp and the preseason, when the final breakthrough came before dawn the day of the most important practice so far leading to the opener for the defending NFC East champs.
Elliott said the support from teammates on display for reporters was the same thing he was getting behind the scenes since the Cowboys flew to California for camp without him July 25.
“Calls, texts,” Elliott said. “I mean, one of my teammates told me don’t come back without a deal. I mean, just support like that from this group of guys meant everything. It definitely would have been harder if things were the opposite.”
Elliott will get $50 million guaranteed. The $15 million-per-year average on the extension surpasses the $14.4 million Todd Gurley got from the Los Angeles Rams last summer. Gurley’s guarantee was $45 million.
The stalemate with the two-time Pro Bowler came with the Cowboys holding high expectations coming off their first playoff win with Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott. They have won two NFC East titles in three seasons together.
“Guys were just excited to see him,” center Travis Frederick said. “It was less about, ‘Thank God you’re here, thank God you got your deal done’ and more about, ‘Man, I’ve missed you. I haven’t seen you in a month.’
“Like one of your brothers has shipped off to do a semester abroad and then all of a sudden comes back. It’s just a good, reuniting feeling.”
Elliott held out with two years left on his rookie contract, at $3.9 million this season and $9.1 million in 2020. The fourth overall pick in the 2016 draft wanted to be the highest-paid back after getting those two rushing titles in only three years.
Now the 24-year-old is, with a contract that totals $103 million over eight seasons.
“I’m $100 million lighter as of this morning,” owner Jerry Jones said on CNBC in New York, where he and his son, executive vice president Stephen Jones, rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. “Zeke has been arguably our best player. We’re glad to get him booked in.”
Even when he was suspended for six games over domestic violence allegations in 2017, Elliott still had the best per-game rushing average in the league. He’s the fifth back since the 1970 merger to win at least two rushing titles his first three seasons.
But the off-field issues were part of the backdrop as the impasse dragged on, although Jerry Jones, also the team’s general manager, said more than once he didn’t consider Elliott’s personal problems to be factors for a new contract.
Jones jokingly said “Zeke who?” in response to a question from a reporter after a second straight solid preseason showing from rookie fourth-round pick Tony Pollard in Hawaii. Pollard would have started against the Giants if Elliott hadn’t signed.
A few days later, though, Jones sternly said he had earned the right to joke about Elliott after the 2016 All-Pro’s representatives took offense to the remark. The owner strongly supported Elliott during a court fight over the suspension.
“I mean, that’s so far behind us,” Elliott said of Jones’ tongue-in-cheek remark. “We signed a deal, so there’s no point in talking about that other stuff.”
As the regular season drew closer, Jones took an increasingly hardline stance publicly, finally calling out Elliott during his radio show last week for not honoring his existing contract.
“Everybody loves Zeke,” coach Jason Garrett said. “He brings great energy and juice, so we’re excited to have him back. The guys, I think, have handled any situation and all situations really well this offseason, whether it’s the business side of football, injuries, whatever it is.”
The most pressing issue on the business side is settled.