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Pushing the Pocket - Don't Fear Ezekiel Elliott's Unknown

Fahey makes the case for drafting Ezekiel Elliott in the first round.

Rarely will you see a rookie go in the first round of your fantasy draft. Even the very best prospects over the past 10 years haven't been consensus top picks, Adrian Peterson ranked 48th on My Fantasy League back in 2007 and Trent Richardson came in at 29th in 2012. No matter what strategy you use to put your teams together, you will always be making projections based on what each player has done previously. Naturally, that is a scarier prospect for rookies who haven't had the opportunity to establish themselves at this level. To go in the top-12 of the draft as a rookie, you need to find the perfect combination of situation and prospect.

Enter Ezekiel Elliott.

Elliott is a consensus top pick in drafts this year. My Fantasy League's ADP ranks him seventh, behind only two running backs — Le'Veon Bell and Todd Gurley. In MFL leagues specifically(MFL10s, MFL25s etc), Elliott falls to ninth and is the fourth back off the board behind Bell, Gurley and David Johnson. He has gone first overall and has only fallen as far as 19th overall. Football Guys rankers generally agree, ranking Gurley ninth in redraft and 12th in ppr-redraft. You don't need to look too far to find rookies performing to an elite level in fantasy football.

Neither David Johnson or Todd Gurley were full-time backs for the full season last year, yet both finished in the top 10 in scoring for running backs. Johnson ranked eighth and Gurley ranked ninth. Jim McCormick of ESPN went through the historical numbers, noting that rookie RB1s were rare. RB1s in general are exceptions so that shouldn't scare anyone away from drafting a rookie in the first round. Veterans and rookies all come with risk, the risk with rookies is just more palpable because of the obvious unknown. So long as he fits the criteria of a top fantasy prospect, he should be treated just like any other top fantasy prospect. So does Elliott fit the criteria?

The Situation

Over the past two seasons, Dallas Cowboys running backs have averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 839 attempts. DeMarcu Murray accounted for 392 of those attempts with Darren McFadden making up another 239. Only Christine Michael averaged fewer than 4.0 yards per carry, he averaged 3.4 last year on 15 carries. Save for Murray, the Cowboys haven't had an above-average starter in place to maximize the production of their running game. The numbers were even more subdued last year by the fact that Tony Romo was absent for most of the season through injury.

Without Romo, opposing defenses could simply stack the box in an attempt to outnumber the Cowboys blockers. The Cowboys offensive line didn't play to its potential last year, yet even under those conditions the running game still averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

In Week 15 of last season, the Cowboys faced the best run defense in the NFL. The New York Jets defense ranked first by DVOA against the run and did so by a distance. A unit that was led by its defensive line allowed just 3.6 yards per carry and 83.4 yards per game. Yet, with Matt Cassel as their quarterback and a combination of Darren McFadden and Robert Turbin splitting carries, the Cowboys were able to run for 101 yards against the Jets in Week 15. They averaged 5.3 yards per attempt, McFadden alone averaged 6.3 yards per attempt with a longest run of 33 yards.

Most teams are overwhelmed by the Jets defensive line when they try to run the ball against them. Having Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, Damon Harrison and Leonard Williams like the Jets had last season makes for a beefy, athletic and technically sound defensive front. That unit boasted multiple players who could dominate in one-on-one situations on the majority of their snaps. Considering most offensive lines have at least one liability in their starting lineup, the Jets could always find a way to disrupt the design of running plays. Because the Cowboys essentially have four first-round picks on their offensive line, they could match the talent that was facing them.

The benefit of playing behind the Cowboys offensive line is space. You don't need to create any space because it is given to you by the quality of blocking at the line of scrimmage. That can be seen in the above gif. The above gif is Darren McFadden's second run of the game. He gains five yards on an outside zone run against an eight-man front. To gain five yards, McFadden only needed to correctly read Doug Free's block before cutting inside. He was sprung to the second level without showing off great quickness, elusiveness or without breaking a tackle.

Because McFadden had the space to work in behind the line of scrimmage, it was easier for him to be patient before building up momentum to run through the relatively wide hole. Defenders could only grasp at him desperately as he advanced downfield.

On the very next play, the Cowboys run the above counter play and McFadden gains 11 yards. McFadden should have gained much more than 11 yards but he was slow to recognize and attack the right running lane. McFadden pressed the outside running lane for too long when he should have recognized the defensive back waiting for him and planted his foot to cut upfield immediately. Had he done so, he would have got deeper into the defense earlier, finding space that the deep defensive backs ultimately closed off. Speed is a big issue with McFadden.

McFadden used to be an explosive back but injuries sapped him of his athleticism. The Cowboys had an explosive back in Joseph Randle but he had inconsistent vision and was cut prematurely because of off-field issues.

Even when McFadden was breaking off big gains, you could still see the yardage that he was leaving on the field because of his lack of speed.

On McFadden's 33-yard run against the Jets, he couldn't outrun Calvin Pryor in space. Pryor isn't slow so this isn't a major issue, but he was in an advantageous position that gave him an opportunity to make a defender miss in space to extend the run towards the endzone. What should be noted on this play is the action of the offensive line. Left tackle Tyron Smith seals the edge with an outstanding block while La'el Collins pulls behind him to pick up Sheldon Richardson. Richardson plants Collins in the ground but the guard's athleticism allowed him to meet Richardson at the perfect point to prevent him from impacting McFadden.

While the Cowboys primarily run zone concepts, their individual talent on the offensive line allows them to be versatile in how they attack defenses.

The Cowboys offensive line is capable of outmaneuvering its opponents as well as mauling through them and out leveraging them. While we may think of running plays as running right, left or up the middle (Thanks Madden) the running game can be as versatile as the passing game if it has enough talent to execute different types of plays. Both of the team's guards were tackles in college and center Travis Frederick is renowned for his versatility. This not only opens up the offense's options in the running game but also makes them more dangerous on screen plays when the running back leaks out of the backfield.

Lance Dunbar's injury robbed the Cowboys of their true receiving back last year. With a declining Jason Witten, no obvious second receiver and Tony Romo's health a priority, the running back position in Dallas should become more of a priority in the passing game. When DeMarco Murray was the team's feature back in 2014 he ran the ball 392 times and still managed to catch 57 passes in the regular season. McFadden even managed to reach 40 receptions last season.

The Cowboys own website suggested that Elliott would receive between 280 and 300 carries as a rookie despite the obvious depth the team carries. With 280 carries at 4.7 yards per carry, Elliott would gain 1,316 yards without ever catching a pass in 2016. In this situation, that should be considered an above-average starting running back's floor. The next question; Is Elliott an above-average starting running back?

The Talent

Playing in space won't be an unfamiliar feeling for Elliott. He played behind a very good offensive line at Ohio State in a scheme that regularly put him in space. Elliott didn't need to show off subtle feet or an ability to manipulate defenders behind the line of scrimmage with his movement. What Elliott did at Ohio State was exactly what the Cowboys will ask of him in the NFL. He will need to consistently make good decisions while showing off the explosiveness and power to get the most out of what his blocking gives him.

On this play against Michigan, Elliott recognizes that his initial running lane is collapsing so he cuts back. He is cutting back on a power design which is typically not a good idea but Elliott recognized that it was in this moment. Furthermore, Elliott has the kind of athleticism that allows him to cutback on power plays because of his quick-twitch athleticism combined with his power. The defender who is in the hole by design (the reason you don't cut back on power) should bring Elliott to the ground but he can't cope when the running back lowers his shoulder to plough through him.

Elliott won't run much power for the Cowboys but the evidence of his ability to read what is happening in front of him is still reassuring when evaluating his vision.

This play from the same game again highlights Elliott's comfort and vision. If this play works as designed, Elliott is supposed to follow his two lead blockers outside. Instead, those pulling linemen get in each other's way to disrupt the design of the play. The first blocker concedes ground to his defender, allowing penetration that prevents the second blocker from following his designed path. Elliott recognizes this and stutters his feet so he can reset his angle behind his lead blockers. This movement buys time to allow the play to develop and helps the blockers establish leverage.

Even though the play was designed to go to the outside, Elliott is now in creative mode because the design was broken. He is quick to cut upfield, showing off acceleration and strength to fight forward for a six-yard gain that could easily have been a three-yard loss.

It's plays such as these that allowed Elliott to become a top-five pick in the draft. He also offers huge value as a receiver because he can line up anywhere in the formation to run routes or sit in pass protection to be trusted alone in blitz pickups. How the Cowboys use Elliott as a receiver will likely depend on how the whole offense sets itself up. He is so versatile that he will be used in the way that puts others in the best possible position to succeed. If that means more pass protection, he will pass protect more. If it means lining up more as a receiver, he'll line up more as a receiver.

As far as running the ball goes, Elliott offers the Cowboys the kind of well-rounded athleticism that the Cowboys haven't had since DeMarco Murray was the feature back. Christine Michael had great speed and agility but didn't boast the same size and strength as the 6'0", 225 lb rookie.

Elliott carries a relatively slender frame that allows him to break off big gains and be elusive in space. The Cowboys had just three 40+ yard carries in 2015, two from McFadden and one from Dunbar. Elliott was a big-play machine in college. He had long gains of 80, 75, 55, 66 and 47 yards in separate games during his final season. Once Elliott hits full speed it's extremely difficult to catch him from behind or take him down in space. Being able to move at the speed he does with his size and strength will make him one of the tougher backs in the league to tackle in the open field.

That power and an aggressive running style will make him an effective goal-line back also.

Elliott scored 23 rushing touchdowns during his final season in college football. He scored in a variety of ways, hitting home runs and burrowing his way into the endzone in short-yardage situations. He is a receiving back with the power to run between the tackles, the explosiveness to break off big plays and the consistency in his decision making to consistently get the yards his offensive line gives him. He is one of the most versatile running backs to come out of college in a long time. Elliott should put up huge numbers behind the best offensive line in the NFL.

When we begin to explore the pool of running backs for fantasy each year, we don't start by looking at each player's experience. We don't require that each player has played a season or two and proven himself to qualify as a good player. We may subconsciously hold it against rookies because we haven't seen them do it before, but the boxes we look to tick off have nothing to do with how long the specific player has played.

Transitioning from college to the NFL can be very difficult but it's easier at the running back position than anywhere else. The biggest obstacle for backs is typically pass protection and Elliott excels in that area.

Of course there is risk in taking Elliott but there is risk in taking Le'Veon Bell, Todd Gurley, David Johnson and the host of wide receivers who constantly go in the first round. Elliott's upside is arguably higher than all of those players because of the situation he is inheriting coupled with his talent. Elliott should be a top-10 pick in fantasy draft and an unquestioned first-round pick. A strong case can even be made that he should be the first player taken in the draft because of Le'Veon Bell's health question marks. The only real argument against Elliott is that he's a rookie.

That's not really an argument at all.