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Player Spotlight: Ezekiel Elliott

A detailed look at Ezekiel Elliott's fantasy prospects

POSITIVES

  • Elliott was an instant success, finishing as the #2 fantasy running back as a rookie
  • The Cowboys offensive line is among the league's best
  • In a league where workhorse backs are a dying breed, Elliott is guaranteed 320+ touches over a full season

NEGATIVES

  • Off-the-field concerns raise the specter of a potential suspension
  • Two-fifths of the offensive line is being replaced from last year's dominant unit
  • Dak Prescott is a capable short yardage and goal-line threat

Believe the Hype

Fantasy owners tend to get overly excited about rookies. It's human nature. We love the "new." Back when many of us started playing fantasy football, running backs dominated the early rounds and rookies frequently made an impact. In recent years, thanks to a continuing transition to pass-heavy offenses and the tendency to use running back committees, rookie running backs have fallen short of lofty expectations. Ezekiel Elliott broke the trend:

  • 322 carries (1st among running backs)
  • 1,631 yards rushing (1st)
  • 5.1 yards per rush (5th)
  • 15 rushing touchdowns (3rd)
  • 1,994 yards from scrimmage (2nd)
  • 16 total touchdowns (3rd)
  • 1st Team All Pro (Associated Press)
  • 1st Team All Pro (Pro Football Writers)
  • 1st Team All Pro (Sporting News)
  • #2 fantasy running back (behind David Johnson)
Elliott not only dominated his contemporaries, but he also had one of the best rookies seasons in the modern era.
 

Table 1: Top Fantasy Rookie Running Backs (2007-2016)

RankFirstLastYearRushRuYdsYPRRuTDsRecsRecYdsYPRecRecTDsFPTs
1 Edgerrin James 1999 369 1,553 4.2 13 62 586 9.5 4 315.9
2 Ezekiel Elliott 2016 322 1,631 5.1 15 32 363 11.3 1 295.4
3 Clinton Portis 2002 273 1,508 5.5 15 33 364 11.0 2 289.2
4 Fred Taylor 1998 264 1,223 4.6 14 44 421 9.6 3 266.4
5 Doug Martin 2012 319 1,454 4.6 11 49 472 9.6 1 264.6
6 Mike Anderson 2000 297 1,487 5.0 15 23 169 7.4 0 255.6
7 Alfred Morris 2012 335 1,606 4.8 13 11 77 7.0 0 246.3
8 Matt Forte 2008 316 1,238 3.9 8 63 477 7.6 4 243.5
9 Adrian Peterson 2007 238 1,341 5.6 12 19 268 14.1 1 238.9
10 Maurice Jones-Drew 2006 166 941 5.7 13 46 436 9.5 2 227.7
11 Steve Slaton 2008 268 1,282 4.8 9 50 377 7.5 1 225.9
12 LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 339 1,236 3.7 10 59 367 6.2 0 220.3
13 Robert Edwards 1998 291 1,115 3.8 9 35 331 9.5 3 216.6
14 Eddie Lacy 2013 284 1,178 4.2 11 35 257 7.3 0 209.5
15 Chris Johnson 2008 251 1,228 4.9 9 43 260 6.1 1 208.8
16 Willis McGahee 2004 284 1,128 4.0 13 22 169 7.7 0 207.7
17 Trent Richardson 2012 267 950 3.6 11 51 367 7.2 1 203.7
18 Jordan Howard 2016 252 1,313 5.2 6 29 298 10.3 1 203.1
19 Jamal Lewis 2000 309 1,364 4.4 6 27 296 11.0 0 202.0
20 Corey Dillon 1997 233 1,129 4.9 10 27 259 9.6 0 198.8

Any Reason to Worry About the Offensive Line?

The Cowboys have built an offensive line for the ages, but changes are afoot. Long-time right tackle Doug Free retired and left guard Ron Leary left in free agency. Are the changes reason to worry? 
 
  • Left Tackle -- Tyron Smith is a six-year veteran with 95 career starts. He's been named to multiple first-team All Pro rosters and remains one of the league's best. Although he missed three games with a bad back last year, he's been durable and is 100% healthy entering training camp. 
  • Left Guard -- Jonathan Cooper will get the first crack at replacing Leary after Chaz Green -- the presumed starter -- suffered a shoulder injury at the start of camp. Cooper was a total bust in Arizona and New England, so his ability to play up to Leary's level is a major question mark.
  • Center -- Travis Frederick is a perennial Pro Bowler and one of the league's best.
  • Right Guard -- Zach Martin is one of the league's best guards, by any measure.
  • Right Tackle -- La'el Collins, who started at times at left guard in his first two seasons, was given a multi-year extension in the offseason and will shift to right tackle. His injury history and focus on the interior are reasons to be mildly concerned. 
It's possible the offensive line takes a step back in 2017, but Dallas still has three elite players on the line. Few units can boast one All Pro much less three. Given Elliott's natural vision and power, this line -- even if it's not quite as good as last year's unit -- is more than adequate to open holes for him.

Suspend Your Concern Over the Rumored Suspension

Elliott hasn't gotten in any real trouble, but he's met with the commissioner and is rumored to be facing a suspension to start the season. The issue is a domestic abuse accusation by Elliott's former girlfriend. Details are sparse, and at the time of this writing, Elliott had not been charged with any wrongdoing by the police. Regardless of whether Elliott faces legal issues, the league can and probably will impose its own discipline. As long as the suspension is no more than one or two games, it should have ZERO impact on Elliott's value on draft day. If the suspension is longer, we'll have to reassess. 
 
  • Zero to Two-Game Suspension (0-2) -- Elliott should be no worse than the 3rd overall pick in every league
  • Three- or Four-Game Suspension (3-4) -- That's a significant enough portion of the season to factor in a discount. Elliott remains a 1st round choice, but you'll need to prioritize a fill-in for the first month
  • Five or More Game Suspension (5+) -- Elliott won't be suspended this long without tangible evidence of significant wrongdoing. Under this scenario, Elliott should be avoided as your RB1 and is worth passing on unless he falls into the 3rd round or later 

PROJECTIONS

YEAR GRSHYDTDTARGRECYDTDFumL
2016 DAL 15 322 1631 15 40 32 363 1 1
2017 PROJ-Dodds 15 275 1326 12   33 327 1 2
2017 PROJ-Henry 14 275 1330 13   32 320 1 1
2017 PROJ-Wood 15 295 1430 11   33 305 1 2
2017 PROJ-Tremblay 16 365 1768 13   35 344 1 4

FINAL THOUGHTS

Elliott is probably going to miss a game or two for off-the-field issues during his college days. As long as the suspension (and accusations) don't go beyond the scope of what we already know, Elliott remains no worse than the third best option on draft day. If you would rather draft David Johnson or LeVeon Bell, it's understandable. No other player should be considered above Elliott. He's immensely talented, made the first team All Pro as a rookie, and remains the centerpiece of a Top 5 offense. The offensive line is integrating two new starters, but the other three spots are manned by elite, All Pro caliber talent. Considering both Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott were rookies last year, and few NFL players peak as rookies, the upside for Elliott (and the Cowboys offense) is wildly exciting. 


OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Matt Waldman is willing to go down with the Ezekiel Elliott ship:

Elliott told the media that his goal is to become as knowledgeable and indispensable to a passing offense as Marshall Faulk was with the Rams. Elliott may lack the preternatural pass-catching talents of Johnson, but just because Johnson could make a spectacular acrobatic grab in a heavily trafficked zone doesn't mean it's a smart idea for the Cardinals to target him this way. What makes a running back a great receiver is the baseline level of skill to catch the ball and an advanced understanding of reading coverage so he can adjust with his quarterback pre- and post-snap and exploit the opponent for big plays.

I have a lot of confidence in Elliott developing along those lines and doing so with a young quarterback on the rise. Despite losing its right tackle and left guard, the Cowboys line should still be good enough for an elite decision maker like Elliott to generate productive plays.

Numberfire's Joe Redemann thinks Ezekiel could be the #1 running back, but he advises against betting on it:

Is it impossible to imagine Elliott as 2017’s top fantasy football running back when all is said and done? Absolutely not. He has an extremely stable floor for production thanks to the Cowboys feeding him rushing attempt after rushing attempt behind one of the NFL's best offensives lines.

However, expecting him to outdo his rookie season may be setting him – and our fantasy teams – up for failure.

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