Can Ezekiel Elliott Be Fantasy Football's Top Running Back in 2017?

Elliott was incredible in his rookie season, finishing second among running backs in standard formats. Can he follow it up with an even better campaign in 2017?​

Expectations are important. Set them high, and you can achieve great things. Believe in yourself, and you can instill the drive and purpose you need to succeed. That’s something I do for my students every day as a teacher. No matter who they are, where they come from, or what they’re going through, they are all capable of excellence – and I hold them to that.

When someone is already achieving highly, however, the expectation for growth is a tough one. How far above “incredible” is it possible for someone to rise?

This is our question for Dallas Cowboys sophomore running back Ezekiel Elliott, who came out of Ohio State in last year’s draft, was selected in the top-five – unprecedented since Trent Richardson went that high in 2012 – and proceeded to devastate the NFL. Elliott led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns, racking up 322 carries along the way.

Even crazier, the kid was just six yards from scrimmage shy of 2,000 total yards in his first year in the league, thanks to 363 receiving yards.

Despite all of this, Elliott was not 2016’s top running back in fantasy football. What will it take for him to increase his achievement on the gridiron and the fantasy field?

Top of the Class

There’s nothing to say about Elliott’s rookie season except that it was marvelous and historic. Our own Justin Rau took a snapshot look at Elliott’s season at the end of the year, and it measures up against some of the best rookie running backs of all time.

Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, two rookie running backs have rushed for more yards: Hall of Famer and 1983 rookie Eric Dickerson and 1981 sensation George Rogers. Elliott outrushed even modern stars Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis.

Only five rookie running backs since the merger have accrued 5.00 yards per carry while totaling 250 rushing attempts: Portis, Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, Jordan Howard, Mike Anderson, and Elliott – who was the only one to achieve this feat with over 300 carries. That is ridiculous efficiency.

To add scoring insult to yardage injury, Elliott’s 4.66 percent touchdown rate was the most efficient rookie scoring rate on the ground outside of just Portis, Anderson, Sanders, and Fred Taylor. The only first-year backs to post 4.50 percent rates in this mark while racking up 300 or more attempts? Elliott and Dickerson.

Everything about Ezekiel Elliott’s ground game confirms that his first year in the league was phenomenal, including our own advanced analytics here at numberFire. We can use Net Expected Points (NEP) to confirm his impressive rushing performance.

NEP is a metric that describes the contribution a play (or player) makes to their team’s chances of scoring. By adding down-and-distance value to the box score, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

Among the 11 running backs in 2016 with this 250 carries or more, Elliott’s 0.11 Rushing NEP per attempt was far and away the best mark. The top five are shown below.

Player Team Rushes Rush NEP/P Rush Success %
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 321 0.11 47.04%
Jay Ajayi MIA 260 0.08 43.46%
Le'Veon Bell PIT 261 0.07 44.83%
Jordan Howard CHI 251 0.06 44.22%
DeMarco Murray TEN 293 0.02 44.03%

Elliott’s ground game was unquestionably the best, as he topped even David Johnson of the Arizona Cardinals and Le'Veon Bell of the Pittsburgh Steelers in terms of rushing efficiency. He was the most consistent running back at high volume, too, with a Rushing Success Rate (the percent of rushes that earn positive NEP) well above the next-best Bell.

In fact, among the 226 running backs since 2000 to have had a season with 250 rushing attempts or more, Elliott’s Rushing NEP per attempt is 13th best.

But the one thing that keeps Elliott out of the super-elite fantasy running back tier is his receiving production.

Class Clowning

Among these 226 running backs since the new millennium to have 250 carries or more, Elliott’s 8.03 rushes per target was the 70th most. Compare that to Johnson, who saw 293 carries and 120 targets in the passing game last year; he had 2.44 rushes per target and that balanced profile led him to a top-of-the-pile fantasy finish for running backs.

Elliott has mastered the art of the run in only his first year in the league. To take that next step, he has to polish his receiving chops and get more volume in the air.

The good news for him is that Dallas has averaged 52.8 targets per season to their top running back over the last five years. Granted, we know just how versatile and impressive DeMarco Murray is, and even Darren McFadden has proven receiving chops. Still, it’s not ridiculous to imagine that the Cowboys in a spread offense – quarterback Dak Prescott's specialty – could offer a few more targets to their budding superstar back in 2017.

Let’s stack Elliott up against the stumbling block to his RB1 potential, David Johnson. The table below shows their workloads and non-PPR fantasy production from 2016 in both the rushing and receiving games.

Player Team Total FPTS Rushes Rush FPTS Targets Rec FPTS
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 295.4 322 253.1 39 42.3
David Johnson ARI 331.8 293 219.9 120 111.9

In 2016, Elliott outproduced Johnson on the ground by about 33 fantasy points, but earned a ridiculous 70 fewer points in the receiving game; remember, this is non-PPR.

Even if Elliott sustains his crazy-high rate of 1.085 fantasy points per target on 39 looks in 2016 – which is unlikely – he would need a little over 33 more targets than he had to eclipse Johnson’s 2016 fantasy total. Now, Johnson’s ridiculous 0.933 receiving fantasy points per target on 120 targets may also fall, but the fact of the matter is that the Cowboys don’t tend to throw to the running back 70 to 75 times a season, and that’s the range we are talking for Elliott to unseat Johnson (assuming again that Elliott’s historic efficiency numbers from his rookie season hold into his sophomore year).

Is it impossible to imagine Elliott as 2017’s top fantasy football running back when all is said and done? Absolutely not. He has an extremely stable floor for production thanks to the Cowboys feeding him rushing attempt after rushing attempt behind one of the NFL's best offensives lines.

However, expecting him to outdo his rookie season may be setting him – and our fantasy teams – up for failure.