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The Demise of Ezekiel Elliott Remains exaggerated
The disdain for Ezekiel Elliott's game continues to amuse me and his current fantasy value continues to reinforce that disdain. So my thoughts from this summer about Elliott and the running back position bear repeating before showing you why Elliott could be a valuable piece in re-shaping your roster into a contender:
This summer, coaches and executives claimed the burst Elliott once had were no longer there. This came from the eternal and unintentional comedic genius of the "anonymous GM," who observed that lack of burst despite Elliott playing with a ligament injury from October until the season's end, which would slow any back.
Then there was ESPN's venerable Bill Barnwell, who suggested that Tony Pollard should be starting in Dallas. According to SI's Mike Fisher (see link above), the basis of his argument was "over-expected" data, yards-per-carry data, and the passing game. I touched on some of the data-based arguments against Elliott in an article this summer, noting that, like most statistical tools, they can be helpful but depending on how they are used, they are also infamous for ignoring the context underpinning the most important facets of running back play.
It's understandable that the general public overvalues speed with running back play because even some head coaches are guilty here. While Elliott was quicker and faster than Pollard based on their respective Combine workouts, the differences were marginal, and it's easy to perceive that Pollard is more explosive because he's beginning his runs more often in more open spaces than Elliott, which often means negotiating fewer bodies.
I have no doubt that Pollard is more explosive than Elliott at this point in their careers, but what Elliot has lost (and it's not much) is of marginal importance to the true craft of running the football.
Since the public falls for the "because he's faster, he is better" argument all too often, it reinforces the outdated idea that running back is a primitive position that requires little conceptual and technical skill and good performers operate purely on instinct.
I've been dispelling this notion for years. The first section of this article sums it up effectively: What appears to be athletic responses to defenders based solely on instinct are proven techniques and concepts learned to the speed of instinct. The more you learn about what good running backs do, the more you discover a difference between backs leaning on raw athletic ability and backs who have a refined understanding of their position and the game.
I'm not the only one, the NFL is gradually arriving at this realization as they embrace pre-draft testing that measures how fast players process information on the field. One of the early discoveries: The closer the player begins his work in the middle of the field, the more important it is for that player to process information efficiently.
Guess which position is prominently mentioned?
Another common data point surrounding Elliott's potential demise is PFF's Elusiveness Rating. The site defines this metric as "an attempt to quantify the work a runner does independent of his blocking, looking at the number of tackles broken or avoided and the yards gained after first contact."
PFF offers a lot of value to football fans. Even so, one should expect that with any analysis conducted as students of the game, there will be efforts that come up short and are still evolving. Elusiveness Rating is one of them.
The metric is a conflation of two aspects of running back play: avoiding tackles and breaking tackles. Is the runner truly elusive or skilled after contact? Second, as I've detailed in the past, this is a flawed way of measuring either facet of running back play.
When it comes to power, which is a greater display: a cornerback slapping Saquon Barkley on the thigh pad and Barkley gaining 70 yards afterward or a defensive tackle and middle linebacker making being the bread for a Nick Chubb sandwich at the line of scrimmage and Chubb gaining 8 yards? Again, I've broached that there's a better way.
When it comes to elusiveness, which is a greater display: Barkley jump-cutting across two gaps to avoid a blitzing middle linebacker at the edge of the crease and bouncing the run for a five-yard gain to the boundary or Chubb hopping over the shot of a linebacker in a tight crease and, the moment his feet return to earth, he opens his hips to slide away from the oncoming safety who is inches from him and gains five yards?
When judging power, I'd answer Chubb, but PFF is measuring results over the process with this metric. When leaning too hard on this layer of analysis, one can lose perspective of factors that may have led to a temporary decline in performance or one placing too much weight on the results without accounting for the entire process of running the football.
When judging elusiveness, the scenario between Chubb and Barkley is close to even. Both are productive displays, and judging one over the other requires an understanding of the play design and the angles of the defenders threatening the runner.
In other words, one must account for situational football, which means the context of the game film. Once again, the closer the player is to the middle of the field to begin a play, the better he must be as a processor of information.
This is where Elliott remains an excellent runner, even if he's not quite as explosive as when he entered the league. We'll see soon enough that whatever he's lost athletically is far less important than those make it out to be.
Elliott-Pollard: Metrics that Supply More Situational Context
When looking at Pollard's 2021 performance, judging him as a superior option to start ahead of Elliott was unfair to both Elliott and Pollard. Their utilizations were too different and where they intersect, Elliott was better in more difficult scenarios and with a significantly higher workload. Let's compare their metrics after six weeks. The percentages in parentheses note the difference between now and 2021. Numbers in blue type are positive indicators. Numbers in red are negative indicators.
|Carries between the 20s
|Runs for No Gain
|23% (No Change)
|Runs for a Loss
|Gains of at Least 8 Yards
|Carries vs. Boxes with 5 or Fewer Defenders
|Carries vs. Boxes with 6-7 Defenders
|Carries vs. Boxes with 8 Defenders
|Carries vs. Boxes with 9+ Defenders
|0% (No Change)
Last year, Pollard didn't run the ball deep in the Cowboys' end of the field or in the red zone, predominantly more difficult scenarios to run the ball. When he ran the ball, over three-quarters of his work came in pass-heavy alignments, leading to fewer defenders in the box and more space to operate.
This year, Pollard is earning more work outside the 20s, earning 8 percent of his touches in the red zone and 9 percent for Elliott. Both players have two rushing touchdowns. Thus far, this is a victory for the Pollard camp and a loss for Elliott, whose past history of dominating the red-zone touches baked in fantasy upside as a top-12 runner.
Pollard is also earning more opportunities in heavy boxes than he has in the past. However, Elliott remains the more efficient back based on the number of opposing defenders in the box, losses, and plays for no gain.
Elliott continues to perform better in more situationally demanding scenarios.
The Metric That May Matter most By Season's End
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