After payday, Zeke ready to go to 'next level now'

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  • By Grant Gordon NFL.com
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It was a welcomed chaos as Ezekiel Elliott fielded questions from a storm of reporters on Wednesday at the Cowboys' media center.

Just hours earlier it was announced that Elliott and the Cowboys had agreed upon a blockbuster deal that weighed in as a six-year, $90 million extension that equates to an eight-year, $103 million contract with $50 million guaranteed. It averages out to $15 million per season.

All the posturing and negotiating, the strong words and subtle jabs and, most essentially, the holding out had ended. It was a roller coaster Elliott was happy to have gotten off of.

"I learned I am mentally tough," he said. "It's definitely one of the hardest things I've ever been through."

Just as Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards a season ago, he's now tops among running backs in all the aforementioned contract numbers -- highest total value, highest average annual value and most guaranteed money. And Zeke believes he deserved to be paid as such.

"Because I think I'm the best," he told the pit of reporters who had gathered around him, swarming the tailback like few defenses do.

A holdout that officially began on July 26 when the Cowboys reported to training camp in Oxnard, California endured for more than a month and through a litany of updates, most often by owner Jerry Jones, that seemingly ranged from contentious to complimentary.

Elliott, who said he hadn't yet talked to Jones and hadn't personally spoken with him for "a while," said the most difficult aspect of the holdout was being away from his teammates, but, in turn, they were the ones who got him through it.

"It's super tough, it was really hard. Super hard," Elliott said. "Honestly, what helped me get through was the support of the guys in this building, just communicating with them every day. Them just supporting me and that meant a lot.

"We're a close-knit group. It all goes way farther than football. We actually love each other. We're a family. We understand each other and we just have a great respect for each other."

Though Elliott had two seasons remaining on his rookie contract, he jumped ahead in Dallas' long and distinguished line of players seeking extensions. Elliott's new deal was the fourth major extension doled out by Dallas this offseason following those to defensive stalwarts Demarcus Lawrence and Jaylon Smith and, most recently, offensive lineman La'el Collins on Tuesday.

The conclusion to the Zeke madness will now draw more focus upon awaiting extensions for quarterback Dak Prescott and receiver Amari Cooper. And when asked about Prescott, Elliott was his No. 1 fan.

"I want to see it get done," Elliott said of Prescott getting an extension, "I want to play with him for the rest of my career."

With the return of Elliott, the Cowboys can now once again boast one of the last true bell-cow backs in the game. Over three seasons, Elliott has already rushed for more than 4,000 yards with a pair of rushing crowns dotting his resume. In the season past, Elliott rumbled for a league-high 1,434 yards and led the league with 381 touches, spurring along the back's thoughts that a big payday was needed today rather than tomorrow, which is always an unpredictable date for any NFL player, but more so for running backs.

Elliott isn't a fan of the NFL's current trend of running back paydays, but admitted it is a sign of the times.

"I think it is a little unfair, but the system is the system," Elliott said.

The next quandary for Elliott and the Cowboys to solve is if the fourth-season back will play in the season opener Sunday in Dallas against the division-rival New York Giants. Though Zeke was reportedly staying in shape and training in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, his absence from training camp and any preseason games would put into question whether he's in football shape. The plan is for him to play, but he said he'll be smart about preparation.

"It's just going out there and seeing how your body feels and just being smart," Elliott said. "I think I'm just gonna approach it like a normal week. I still have to be fresh by Sunday. It is a long season, so I don't want to try and overdue it and risk injury."

Throughout Elliott's holdout, Jones chimed in quite a bit.

One particular quip that drew notice was when rookie Tony Pollard had a positive Week 2 preseason and Jones asked the media "Zeke who?" after the game.

Elliott said it was all part of negotiations. When pressed about the "Zeke who?" instance, he said their was no reason to dredge it up.

"That's so far behind us," Elliott said. "I mean we signed the deal, so I mean there's literally no point talking about that."

Throughout the ordeal, one prevailing quandary that emerged was the need for a top-flight rusher to become the top team at season's end. After all, only Emmitt Smith and Terrell Davis have won rushing titles the same seasons their teams won Super Bowls.

With a new contract in hand, Elliott can set out looking to repeat as the rushing champ and in the hopes of leading the Cowboys to their first Super Bowl title since 1999.

"I've just got to take it to the next level now," he said.

Zeke is back with the Cowboys, who are now ready to ride into the season's sunrise.

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