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Cowboys may anticipate an Ezekiel Elliott return in October, at the latest

The Cowboys are publicly positioning themselves to be fine without Ezekiel Elliott for weeks into the regular season as the standoff between the two sides continues.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones may be trying to position himself for the ability to declare victory, even if running back Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout lasts into the regular season.

“We’ve got a marathon here,” Jones said earlier this week. “We want Zeke when we get to the playoffs. We want Zeke when we’re in the dog days of the season.”

Whether they sign Elliott to a new contract or not, they’ll likely get Zeke in the “dog days of the season.” Signed through 2020, Elliott risks tolling his contract for a full year if he doesn’t show up in time to get credit for the fourth year of his five-year rookie deal. Under the Joey Galloway arbitration precedent from nearly 20 years ago, a player under contract gets credit for the contract year by playing in eight games.

Given the possibility that the Cowboys will request and receive a roster exemption of up to three weeks when Elliott returns, his best move would be to show up right after Week Six. That way, he’s guaranteed to be available for eight games -- from Week 10 (a Sunday night contest vs. the Vikings) through Week 17 -- even if the Cowboys use the maximum roster exemption.

The Cowboys understand these rules, and they surely assume that Elliott will show up in time to get credit for 2019, setting himself up for 2020 being the final year of his contract. By talking about the season being a marathon and wanting Zeke for the “dog days” and the playoffs, Jones hints at a regular-season holdout of up to six weeks, a roster exemption to get Zeke into shape, and then having Elliott on the team for the final two months of the regular season.

Of course, it’s possible that Elliott, who didn’t flinch at forfeiting a year of credit toward free agency, won’t care about letting his contract toll for a full year. If his goal isn’t to become a free agent but to get more money from the Cowboys, he could choose to skip the full season, giving up more than $3.5 million but preserving his body.

While that wouldn’t secure the same path to free agency that Le’Veon Bell finagled a year ago, Elliott’s leverage over the Cowboys comes from the withholding of services. And Elliott, who seemingly stunned the Cowboys with his training-camp holdout, could shock them by not showing up at all this season.

For now, they assume he’ll be there, perhaps no later than the days following the sixth Sunday of the season. Unless the two sides begin to make progress soon in their negotiations, it’s time to start looking at Week Six as the potential point of no return.