The Spotlight Series
A Footballguys Spotlight is an in-depth look at a player. His plusses and minuses are examined, and we give you our bottom-line stance on his 2022 prospects. If a player listed below doesn't yet have a link, don't worry. It's coming soon.
Are We Too Optimistic About Ezekiel Elliott?
A few years ago, Ezekiel Elliott was the most dominant offensive player in the league. He was an easy early-round choice in any fantasy draft as an effective, talented, versatile workhorse in an era of ever-decreasing workloads and increasing usage of running back committees.
Entering this season, opinions on Elliott are far less unified. Many within the industry view Elliott as a fade even though his ADP is lower than ever. But at Footballguys, we’re strongly aligned with Elliott being one of the best value picks at his position. Is our staff’s collective optimism overdone?
- Declining Usage
- Declining Effectiveness
- The Offensive Line isn’t an Excuse
- No Longer a Closer
- Don’t Count on Increased Targets
Our Optimism is an Outlier
A Footballguys Staff Rankings Snapshot
- 16 rankers
- Top-10 rankings – 4 staffers
- Top-12 – 6 staffers
- Top-15 – 12 staffers
- Outside the Top 15 – 4 staffers
In other words, 75% of our staff believe Elliott is worth more than his current ADP. He was also the most nominated running back in our annual Best Values feature, with six of us picking him as a bargain.
Elliott’s 2021 No. 7 Ranking is Misleading
The crux of Elliott being undervalued is that he’s never finished worse than RB12 and is coming off a 7th-place ranking, so why would he not be worth drafting as a top-12 tailback? Elliott's track record looks unassailable if we’re focused solely on total year-end points.
Year-End Running Back Rankings (PPR)
- 2016 – RB2
- 2017 – RB12
- 2018 – RB5
- 2019 – RB3
- 2020 – RB9
- 2021 – RB7
The problem with using that lens is that missed games skew it. While missing games is problematic, there are many times when a player misses a game or two but is dominant otherwise. Elliott played 17 games last season, whereas most top fantasy tailbacks played 16 or fewer. Let’s look at how Elliott ranks on a fantasy points-per-game basis.
TABLE: Year-End Fantasy Points per Game Rankings (PPR)
|Year||PPG||Per Gm Rank|
As you can see, Elliott has performed more like a low-end RB2 in the last two seasons on a per-game basis. When he’s in your lineup, he’s not helping you nearly as much as his full-season ranking might suggest.
Declining Usage and Effectiveness
Elliott led the NFL in rushing yards per game for three consecutive seasons from 2016 to 2018 and was among the league leaders in yards from scrimmage in each of his first four seasons.
Elliott was among the most prolific players of the last 20 years.
TABLE: Most Yards from Scrimmage, First Four Seasons (2002-2021)
But injuries, a coaching change, and offensive line turnover appear to have taken their toll.
TABLE: Most Yards from Scrimmage, 5th and 6th Seasons (2002-2021)
In the last 20 years, Elliott ranks only 22nd in total yards for running backs in their 5th and 6th seasons. By comparison, Chester Taylor and Cedric Benson produced more yards.
He’s just not the same player…
Don’t Blame the Offensive Line
Sometimes we can become addicted to the narrative. The Cowboys had the league’s best offensive line for years with multiple All-Pros, but the line fell back to Earth as injuries and retirements mounted. Too many analysts blamed Elliott’s declining efficiency on the offensive line. While that may have been true in 2020, it didn’t explain his per-touch ineffectiveness last year. Pro Football Focus ranked the Cowboys line No. 1 again last year. It wasn’t the line, it was the player.
Dallas Cowboys Year-End Offensive Line Ranking (Pro Football Focus)
- 2016 – 1st
- 2017 – 4th
- 2018 – 14th
- 2019 – 4th
- 2020 – 27th
- 2021 – 1st
So if it’s not the line, what’s the cause of Elliott’s decline?
Elliott’s declining effectiveness isn’t a result of one factor, it’s the confluence of several.
- Mike McCarthy’s Hiring – Mike McCarthy took over as Cowboys head coach two seasons ago, and although offensive coordinator Kellen Moore remains the play-caller, McCarthy has had an impact on the weekly game plan, including relying on Elliott less in aggregate
- Tony Pollard’s Presence – Pollard joined the team two years ago and, not coincidentally, commands a much larger role than Elliott’s prior backups
- Injuries – Elliott dealt with Covid-19 as well as calf, shoulder, and knee injuries over the last two seasons
Is Durability or Role to Blame?
If you watched Elliott in his early seasons, he seemed to get better as the game wore on. His powerful build and endurance, combined with the punishing offensive line allowed him to dominate tired defenses into the fourth quarter. He was the ultimate closer. Unfortunately, his role as the fourth-quarter finisher has gone by the wayside.
TABLE: Ezekiel Elliott 4th Quarter Usage (2016-2021)
We can’t know whether Elliott’s 4th quarter falloff is because of declining durability or play-calling patterns. But since Tony Pollard’s 4th quarter usage isn’t significant (and didn’t increase from Year 1 to Year 2), we can deduce this is more about Elliott being gassed as the game progresses. Whether it’s a lack of willpower because he’s already gotten his big contract or just the compilation of his career workload, there’s no way Elliott will return to the RB1 echelon unless he can rediscover his fourth-quarter vitality.
Two Potential Silver Linings
We’ve laid out a few reasons why Elliott is no longer elite, so why are we at Footballguys collectively more optimistic about Elliott than his current ADP? Here are two reasons:
1) Vacated receiver targets mean an increased role in the passing game
2) He played with a torn PCL last season
Amari Cooper was traded to the Browns because of salary-cap constraints. But he wasn’t the only piece of the passing game who left the building. In all, 32% of last year’s targets were vacated, and that doesn’t include Michael Gallup, who re-signed with the team but is recovering from a torn ACL. To start the season, Dak Prescott will need to find new homes for nearly 50% of last year’s throws.
Will Elliott and Pollard’s role in the passing game increase? While it’s possible, we shouldn’t count on it. Remember, Dallas drafted Jalen Tolbert in the third round, and he’s expected to start immediately. And Dallas also added veteran James Washington. In Prescott’s six seasons, the target distribution has remained relatively constant.
TABLE: Dallas Passing Target Distribution by Position (2016-2021)
Torn PCL Limitations
Considering Elliott played all 17 games, it’s stunning to learn he played most of the year with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament.
"I won't need a procedure (in the offseason)," Elliott told reporters after the game. "It was an injury that wasn't going to get worse, but it was going to take time."
He suffered the injury late in Week 4 against the Panthers. While Elliott isn’t the only player to grind through an injury, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a legitimate reason for his struggles.
TABLE: Elliott Splits, Pre- and Post-PCL Injury
Over the first month – before the PCL injury – Elliott performed like a top-10 fantasy back. After the injury, he performed like a low-end RB2 (RB24, to be exact).
So is he overvalued or not?
As a staff, the good news is that we appear to be analyzing the situation pragmatically. Yes, Elliott is a declining player and hasn’t been an elite fantasy producer for two seasons. Yes, his falloff neatly coincides with Mike McCarthy’s hiring and Tony Pollard’s acquisition. But ranking players isn’t an exact science. It’s about evaluating all possible outcomes, then handicapping them and trying to synthesize the spot where the risk and rewards are most appropriately accounted for.
With Elliott, we know from last year that even at his least efficient, he performed as a fantasy RB2. We also know that his play dramatically turned after the PCL injury. As long as Elliott is healthy during training camp, we should look at his baseline more like the low-end RB1 he delivered in prior seasons and the first month of 2021. With the offensive line back in form and given Jerry Jones’ personal and financial investment in Elliott, we know he will continue to get a ton of volume when healthy.
We would be wrong to advocate drafting Elliott as a top-8 fantasy back, but comparing him to other backs in the RB12-RB18 tier points favorably toward drafting him as your No. 2.
- Javonte Williams (ADP: RB12) – Williams is in a full-blown timeshare, is adapting to a new coaching staff, and a new quarterback
- Saquon Barkley (ADP: RB13) – Barkley plays on an awful offensive team with a bad offensive line and hasn’t been fantasy relevant since 2019
- Alvin Kamara (ADP: RB14) – Kamara may be facing a lengthy suspension, and even if he isn’t, Drew Brees and all those dump-off passes are long gone
- James Conner (ADP: RB15) – Conner only had 752 rushing yards last year but scored 15 touchdowns. Touchdown regression looms
- David Montgomery (ADP: RB17) – Maybe running behind the league’s worst offensive line, with a new coaching staff and a hyper-effective No. 2 in Khalil Herbert breathing down his neck
- Cam Akers (ADP: RB18) – 150 career regular-season carries and a year-plus removed from a torn Achilles
Stats and Projections
Ezekiel Elliott wasn't as good as his RB7 ranking indicated because he played all 17 games, unlike nearly everyone else at the position. On a per-game basis, he finished RB19 in PPR scoring. That's driven his ADP down to RB16, well outside the first round for the first time in his storied career. Yet, the majority of our staff ranks Elliott higher than ADP. While there are plenty of reasons to think Elliott's days as a first-round caliber fantasy asset are over, there's still plenty of reason to think our consensus ranking -- RB12 -- is closer to his baseline outcome than the industry's broader pessimism. Remember, the difference between RB12 and RB16 is less than one fantasy point per week, so we're talking about a tightly bunched group. In that case, defer to the player with the track record, clear role, and fewest questions. Considering Elliott was playing at a top-10 level before hurting his PCL last year, betting on him as your No. 2 in the second or third round remains a disciplined, pragmatic approach.
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