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Player Spotlight: Ezekiel Elliott

A detailed look at Ezekiel Elliott's fantasy prospects for 2016.

UPDATE (7/23/16) -- Ezekiel Elliott has been accused of domestic violence by his ex-girlfriend. Needless to say, these allegations should be taken seriously and it raises a specter of uncertainty entering training camp. For now, we're not adjusting our expectations for Elliott as the details have been spartan and there are many reports that suggest police do not view the allegations credibly. However, please stay tuned for further updates because if the charges prove to be credible, Elliott could be suspended for a period of time at the least.

Old School Rules Apply

Today's NFL is a different game than what most of us grew up watching. When Footballguys was first getting started, one of the main tenets of our advice hinged on the importance of the running back position. Teams gobbled up running backs in the early rounds at the expense of all other positions. The reason was that workhorse running backs were the main scoring options and if you wanted TDs, you needed runners. As the league has transitioned to a pass-heavy focus, the running back position has become marginalized to an extent. Last year represented a nadir in the modern era, as nearly every team utilized two (or more) running backs in a committee approach.

  • In 2010, ten (10) running backs had 1,200+ rushing yards
    • In 2015, only two (2) running backs had 1,200+ rushing yards
  • In 2010, nine (9) running backs had at least 280 carries, and five (5) running backs had 320+ carries
    • In 2015, only two (2) running backs had 280+ carries and only one (1) broke the 320+ mark
  • In 2010, eight (8) running backs had 10 or more touchdowns and five (5) had 12+ rushing TDs
    • In 2015, only five (5) running backs had 10+ scores and ZERO (0) scored 12 or more
The relative value of the average running back has been steadily declining, which is one of the reasons fantasy owners now treat running back with a more balanced touch. However, there remains TREMENDOUS value in TRUE feature backs. Ezekiel Elliott is set to become the next great workhorse.
 

A Pedigreed STAR

Ezekiel Elliott was selected 4th overall by the Dallas Cowboys after a dominating career at Ohio State.
 
YearRushRuYdsYPRRuTDsRecsRecYdsRecTD
2013 30 262 8.7 2 3 23 1
2014 273 1,878 6.9 18 28 220 0
2015 289 1,821 6.3 23 27 206 0
Total 592 3,961 6.7 43 58 449 1

Elliott displayed a rare dominance that speaks to his ability to excel at the NFL level. Not only was he productive in a high volume role, but he showed a willingness to run hard inside, make yards after contact, and is a willing blocker. At 6'0", 225 lbs. with a 4.7 40-yard dash, Elliott is the complete physical package.

Todd Gurley On A Better Offense...

Any analysis of NFL rookies should start with our own Matt Waldman's Rookie Scouting Portfolio. Matt provides in-depth detailed analysis of every rookie skill player, that's far too detailed to re-post here. But here is one component of Matt's analysis that perfectly illustrates why so many of us are excited about Elliott's fantasy prospects:

Based on depth of talent, I have Elliott and Gurley evenly ranked. 

Athletically, Gurley is the greater force of nature. His brute power and sprinter speed are on display more often than Elliott when he touches the ball. Both are excellent running backs in every sense of the position, but Elliott is a more refined craftsman.  

Elliott has the higher breadth of talent score because he’s slightly more accomplished in all the facets of the position and, most importantly, has been healthier. Gurley has a slightly higher ceiling because of what he can physically do on the field. In this sense, Elliott is the Marshawn Lynch to Gurley’s Adrian Peterson.  

If you’ve been a subscriber of the RSP as far back as 2007, you may remember that I had Lynch slightly above Peterson as the top back in that class for almost the same reasons: Lynch was the master craftsman and Peterson the force of nature with once-in-a-generation ceiling. When it comes to Elliott or Gurley, you can’t go wrong with their talent.

If you drafted Todd Gurley last year, you were well rewarded. He recovered from his torn ACL and became a dominant feature back in spite of playing for a team that struggled to move the ball otherwise. Imagine what Todd Gurley would have done on a top-tier offense like say...the Cowboys? Well we're about to find out with Ezekiel Elliott.

The Cowboys Offense: Making Stars Out Of Lesser Men

In the last two seasons, the Cowboys offense has made fantasy stars out of DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden. While neither man is without talent, neither player should be confused for Elliott. We saw what Murray became last year in Philadelphia without the benefit of the Dallas offensive line. And we Darren McFadden had become a shadow of his former self for years in Oakland until resurrecting his career last season behind Dallas' bruising blockers.

FirstLastAgeRushRuYdsRuTDsYPRAtt/GmTgtsRecsRecYdsYPRRecTDFantRank
DeMarco Murray 26 392 1,845 13 4.7 24.5 64 57 416 7.3 0 RB1
Darren McFadden 28 239 1,089 3 4.6 14.9 53 40 328 8.2 0 RB13

In 2014, DeMarco Murray had one of the best fantasy seasons in recent memory...with 2,200+ yards and 13 touchdowns. He finished as the #1 fantasy running back but then left for free agent riches in Philadelphia. The Cowboys hoped a committee of Joseph Randle and veteran Darren McFadden would replicate Murray's production. It didn't. Randle was a marginal contributor (and is now out of the league and dealing with legal troubles) and McFadden became the workhorse by default. Although McFadden wasn't as productive as Murray, he a) did finish as RB13 and b) had to play in a subpar offense that was without Tony Romo and Dez Bryant for much of the season. The important thing to remember about McFadden's 2015 numbers is that -- while not elite in comparison to Murray's -- are still a MAJOR improvement from what McFadden was delivering in Oakland.

  • 2012 Raiders -- 3.3 yards per carry (RB28)
  • 2013 Raiders -- 3.3 yards per carry (RB45)
  • 2014 Raiders -- 3.4 yards per carry (RB40)
  • 2015 Cowboys -- 4.6 yards per carry (RB13)

BEST Line of Its Generation

Footballguys' own offensive line specialist Matt Bitonti surprised no one by ranking the Cowboys offensive line #1 entering training camp:

Dallas

  • Preseason rank: 1st. Difference from the end of last season: 0. 
  • Run Blocking: A+. Pass Blocking: A+. Total: A+.
  • Projected Starters: LT Tyron Smith, LG La’el Collins, C Travis Frederick, RG Zack Martin, RT Doug Free.
  • Key Backups: Ronald Leary, Charles Brown, Joe Looney.

Dallas' offensive line is head-and-shoulders, no question, the best offensive line in football. They boast three current All-Pro’s (Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick and Zack Martin), a feat unmatched by any other team this season. In fact, in the brief history of these offensive line rankings, it has only happened one other time. The fact that the team also returns all five starters from last season, in all of the same spots, give them a huge advantage in cohesion. Even the two players that aren’t All-Pro’s, are at least above average. Left guard La’el Collins especially takes this unit to the next level. He is a top 10 talent who the team acquired as an undrafted free agent. Entering his second season, Collins still has serious physical upside and was responsible for several memorable pancakes last season. He and Martin could be a scary guard duo. Right tackle Doug Free is above average and will be backed up by Charles Brown, whom the team re-signed this offseason. Brown had 22 starts when he was with the Saints and an earlier alum of the same USC program as Tyron Smith. Veteran guard Ronald Leary used to start, but has grown disgruntled in the wake of Collins' emergence and has asked for a trade. But Leary is a valuable interior backup and the team has no great incentive to send him packing. The team drafted Chaz Green to be the right tackle of the future but his rookie year was derailed by hip injuries. Bottom line, this is a hugely talented group, and with the addition of a top 4 pick at running back, the Cowboys’ running attack could be extremely memorable this season. 

Returning Stars

The Cowboys 2015 season was a disaster in most respects. Tony Romo only played four games after breaking his collarbone twice. Dez Bryant only played 7 games, and was a shadow of his usual self. Their replacements struggled MIGHTILY and the Cowboys offense fell off the rails:

  • Points Scored -- 275 (31st in NFL) vs. 467 points in 2014 (5th)
  • Total Yards -- 5,360 (22nd) vs. 6,138 (7th)
  • Turnovers -- 33 (31st) vs. 25 (20th)
  • Passing Yards -- 3,472 (27th) vs. 3,784 (16th)
  • Passing TDs -- 16 (29th) vs. 37 (4th)
  • Rushing Yards -- 1,888 (9th) vs. 2,354 (2nd)
  • Rushing TDs -- 8 (21st) vs. 16 (5th)

With Dez Bryant back (ankle and foot) and Tony Romo successfully recovered from his Mumford procedure (collarbone), there's every reason to think the Cowboys passing attack will return to the high level that we had become accustomed to in prior seasons. As long as opposing defenses can't collapse in the box, it should give Elliott all the opportunity in the world to dominate.


Positives

  • Elliott is considered a near can't-miss prospect by most talent evaluators, including our own Matt Waldman
  • The Cowboys are committed to a balanced offense and field the league's most dominant offensive line
  • Elliott's maturity and his willingness as a pass protector assure he'll have a quick path to playing time and can play in all sub-packages

Negatives

  • Tony Romo has now broken his collarbone three times (twice last year, once in 2010) and any further injury would significantly derail a resurgent Cowboys offense
  • Darren McFadden and free agent Alfred Morris both have designs on playing time
  • Elliott is no sleeper -- he's being routinely drafted in the first round of fantasy drafts

Projections

YEAR GRSHYDTDTARGRECYDTDFumL
2016 PROJ-Dodds 16 255 1135 10   40 320 2 3
2016 PROJ-Henry 16 268 1270 10   33 280 2 1
2016 PROJ-Wood 16 280 1350 10   35 295 1 1
2016 PROJ-Tremblay 16 268 1167 9   51 409 2 4

Final Thoughts

It wasn't long ago that rookie running backs were the only rookies worth considering on draft day. Yet, as the league has skewed toward the passing game and coaches have transitioned to a committee approach on the ground, rookie running backs are no longer sure things. But every year or two a sure thing comes along and Ezekiel Elliott fits that bill. He dominated in college against top competition. He has the size, speed and measurable that equate to stardom at the NFL level. Talent evaluators see a complete back who can run inside and out, make yards after contact, and break away from defenders in the open field. He's a willing blocker and an above average receiver. And he was taken 4th overall by a team that understands its window of contention is closing. The Cowboys didn't have the luxury of a vanity pick -- they clearly intend to give Elliott a massive role right away in hopes it will help the Cowboys outscore their opponents as they did in 2014. Elliott may not be the #1 fantasy running back on draft day, but he's worth considering shortly thereafter.

Other Viewpoints

Yahoo!'s Brad Evans is all-in on Elliott as a 1st round choice:

Here are the reasons why his situation is ripe for success: 1) Dallas’ offensive line is widely regarded as the league’s best run-blocking unit, 2) Cell phone protector Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris are clearly riding shotgun, meaning Elliott will amass an enormous workload, 3) Romo and Bryant provide suitable offensive balance, 4) Zeke is the most complete back to enter the league since Adrian Peterson. He possesses breakaway speed, soft hands, supreme blitz pick-up skills and toughness between the tackles. 5) Dallas enters 2016 with the fifth-easiest fantasy schedule for RBs.

Jim McCormick of ESPN expects a historic season from the talented rookie:

Nine rookie running backs have been afforded at least 250 rushing attempts since 2006, with eight of these efforts resulting in RB1 production (at least 170 standard fantasy points). Of those nine rookie workhorse campaigns, six earned at least 40 targets and 260 receiving yards. This select six averaged 210 standard and 259 PPR points -- good for RB1 production in each of the past 10 seasons -- thanks to such voluminous workloads.

Opportunity is a monumental influence for fantasy success with rookie running backs. We are banking on Elliott to join Doug Martin and Matt Forte in fantasy lore with a top-five finish at the position as a freshman thanks to such a hefty workload. Meanwhile, savvy shares of his draft peers also could pay off given the trends we've witnessed at the position over the past decade.