Fantasy Football: Is Ezekiel Elliott Being Used Like a Feature Back?

Elliott was taken with a high pick, but is his usage justifying the draft position?

The Dallas Cowboys showed great faith in the 2016 NFL Draft when they selected former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall.

Dallas has one of the best offensive lines in football, but after losing DeMarco Murray to the Philadelphia Eagles following the 2014 season, the role of feature back behind that line was left vacant.

After two games, how has Elliott been utilized in the offense?

Elliott's Early Usage

While Murray played 73.8 percent of Dallas' offensive snaps in 2014, third-amongst running backs according to stats compiled by Football Outsiders, the Cowboys' 2015 leader in that field, Darren McFadden, did not share the distinction of workhorse, only playing 59.8 percent of their snaps.

However, per Fantasy Data, he did play on at least 64 percent of Dallas' snaps in 11 games last year and topped 72 percent in eight games.

This season, fantasy players fed off the Cowboys' confidence in Elliott to take advantage of a massive workload behind one of football's best offensive lines, taking the rookie at an average draft position of RB4, per data from Fantasy Pros.

The selection of Elliott this early in the draft was a bit of a leap of faith, requiring a belief that Dallas would treat the rookie running back like a feature back from the start and not allowing the likes of Alfred Morris and Lance Dunbar to get too involved in the game plan.

Through two games, Elliott has played 62 percent of offensive snaps, 14th in the league among running backs. When compared to Morris and Dunbar's share of playing time, Zeke has played on 44 percent more of the snaps than each of them. This level of usage puts him in the same class as Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson.

With respect to workload, Elliott has accumulated 69 percent of the Cowboys' touches out of the backfield, also top-10 in the league. The usage of Elliott, Morris, and Dunbar looks typical of a team with a clear starter, backup, and pass-catching back, but is it possible Morris can creep up on Elliott?

Role and Efficiency

After fumbling twice last week, Elliott was on the sideline while Morris scored the eventual game-winning touchdown over Washington. This can just be viewed as a learning experience for the rookie, but ball security is certainly something to keep an eye on.

Elliott still out-touched Morris 23 to 5 in Week 2, so there is not much to worry about for now. However, in terms of our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, Elliott's 44 touches have led to -8.32 expected points for the Cowboys. Only Adrian Peterson (-9.13) has a lower Total NEP among running backs.

Further, 36.59% of Elliott's carries have led to positive expected points increases, below the league average of 39% last season.

Despite this inefficiency over two games, Elliott's first two weeks should not bring much concern. He bounced back nicely with 83 yards on the ground last week after he was mostly bottled up in Week 1 by what looks like a strong New York Giants' defensive front.

Considering the struggles of other top tier running backs through the first two weeks, Elliott's play on the field is giving fantasy owners little to complain about, and he still has a shot at the best workload in football.

Moving Forward

As long as Zeke remains healthy, he should be considered a workhorse running back given the current landscape of the NFL.

Our running back projections for the remainder of the season have Elliott slated for the fifth-most rushing attempts in the league. Given Morris' role so far and his history of being a solid fantasy player, he may be worth pursuing as an Elliott handcuff based strictly on the possibility of injury.

Otherwise, it should be smooth sailing for Elliott owners going forward.