How Much Has Ezekiel Elliott Impacted the Dallas Cowboys?

Jerry Jones drafted Ezekiel Elliott to improve both his running game and defense. What's been his impact thus far?

Before this year, never had an Urban Meyer coached running back succeeded at a high level in the NFL. With the fourth-overall pick in the NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the hope of breaking this trend.

The Cowboys have had their fair share of great running backs throughout the years, with guys like Tony Dorsett, Emmitt Smith, and DeMarco Murray. Their hope with the Elliott selection was to sustain the success they have had throughout the years with their ground game.

With Elliott on pace for over 1,700 yards, it's time to see just how much of an impact he is having for the Cowboys.

Past Success

After the 2014 season, the Cowboys let Murray hit free agency and used Darren McFadden as a fill-in for 2015. They finally found their long-term Murray replacement with Elliott in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Using traditional statistics, let's see how Elliott has compared to these recent Cowboys running backs on the ground to see how he compares to date. (Elliott's numbers reflect his 16-game pace.)

Player Year Rushes Yds YPC TDS
Ezekiel Elliott 2016 349 1,747 5.0 16
Darren McFadden 2015 239 1,089 4.6 3
DeMarco Murray 2014 392 1,845 4.7 13
DeMarco Murray 2013 217 1,121 5.2 9
DeMarco Murray 2012 161 663 4.1 4
DeMarco Murray 2011 164 897 5.5 2

Elliott is on pace to have the second-most yards as a Cowboys leading rusher since 2011. He's also doing this with the second-most volume since 2011, showing just how much the Cowboys trust him.

Furthermore, we can use our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric to show just how much value Elliott adds to the team. Once again, these numbers -- well, the cumulative ones, like Rushing NEP -- are prorated to 16 games.

Player Year Rush NEP Rush NEP per Play Rush Success % Team Rush NEP Rank
Ezekiel Elliott 2016 31.41 0.09 48.15% 1st
Darren McFadden 2015 -4.41 -0.02 41.42% 9th
DeMarco Murray 2014 10.48 0.03 46.68% 9th
DeMarco Murray 2013 21.42 0.10 47.47% 10th
DeMarco Murray 2012 -7.70 -0.05 48.15% 24th
DeMarco Murray 2011 15.96 0.10 48.78% 25th
Cowboys Average 2011-2015 7.15 0.03 46.50% 15th
NFL Average 2011-2015 -4.31 -0.02 41.55%

Even within our Net Expected Points metric, Elliott has been a monster.

While Cowboys' lead backs were above average among the 227 running backs with at least 100 carries from 2011-2015, Elliott is even outclassing the Dallas average from the past five years. His Rushing NEP per play (how many real points he adds per carry) and his Rushing Success Rate (how often -- what percentage -- he adds positive points on a run), are about equal to Murray's most efficient years as a Cowboy.

What Elliott is doing early on is special, and it has the Cowboys atop our Adjusted Rushing NEP rankings for the first time since 2011.

Lead Dog

Based on volume, Elliott is firmly entrenched as the Cowboys first option in the running game. However, Alfred Morris and Lance Dunbar are helping carry the load a bit, too. Morris has previously accomplished what Elliott is currently on pace for, as he is one of the four running backs to run for over 1,600 yards in his rookie season since the merger.

To further contextualize his success from this year, let's see how Elliott fares compared to his backups.

Player Rushes Yards Yards Per Carry Touchdowns
Ezekiel Elliott 109 546 5.01 5
Alfred Morris 30 128 4.27 2
Lance Dunbar 5 9 1.8 1

Based on traditional statistics, Elliott is dominating his backups in both volume and production. Taking this one step further, we can use our NEP metric to see how much value he's adding compared to them.

PlayerRush NEPRush NEP per playRush Success %
Ezekiel Elliott10.080.0948.15%
Alfred Morris4.500.1553.33%
Lance Dunbar0.480.1040.00%
Cowboys Average1.670.1048.61%
NFL Average-1.19-0.0240.27%

This year, 46 running backs have at least 30 carries. Elliott is the top back in Rushing NEP, sixth in Rushing NEP per play, and fourth in Rushing Success Rate. This is quite the start for a rookie running back. His teammate Morris is ninth, first, and second, respectively, in these categories, although he has almost 80 fewer carries than Elliott. Furthermore, in the minimal sample for Dunbar, even he is above average for running backs this year.

In other words, this Cowboys team is built to run, and the offensive line is clearly helping things a lot. But this shouldn't be held against Elliott. He's still performing about equally to the other Cowboys backs in Rushing NEP per play and Rushing Success Rate this year, and he's far above average for the league, all while running the ball a whole lot.

Furthermore, if Morris or Dunbar were to increase their respective volumes, there's no guarantee their rates stay as impressive as they are. Especially Dunbar: based on his low Rushing Success Rate, it's almost a guarantee that Dunbar's Rushing NEP per play would regress. Moreover, Morris' career rates of 0.02 Rushing NEP per play and 41.80% Rushing Success tell that his current efficiency isn't exactly sustainable.


Although Cowboys owner Jerry Jones justified his selection of Elliott as a way of improving the defense, the defense has actually fallen from 19th to 26th based on Adjusted Defensive NEP. Elliott is not improving the defense, but this doesn't count against him at all.

Instead, he's doing what he was brought in to do, which is improving the Cowboys running game. For the first time since 2011, the Cowboys are atop our team rushing rankings. Much of this is thanks to Elliott's early success. Based on what we have seen so far, Elliott has all the makings to be a special back in the league.

With the team surrounding him, expect Elliott to remain successful for years to come.