How High Is Ezekiel Elliott's Fantasy Football Ceiling in 2018?
When it comes to evaluating fantasy football running backs, a lot of factors come into play. That's less important when we're discussing the top-flight options, but we still need to split hairs in order to determine who's the best and who's the third- or fourth-best.
The top four running backs in terms of average draft position (ADP), per FantasyFootballCalculator, can carry a team to a fantasy championship -- at least on paper. Those four, in order, are Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, and David Johnson.
You can certainly have your preference between them, but one thing is for sure: Elliott has legitimate concerns about his team's offense. With NFL teams running the ball with the lead and passing when down as much now as ever, we need to consider the Dallas Cowboys' struggles at the end of 2017 as we examine Elliott's fantasy value for 2018.
Is the situation bad enough to keep Elliott out of this elite fantasy tier? Let's see if we can find the answer.
The 2017 Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys are supposed to be America's team. And that's great for the Dallas Cowboys as a business, but not so much the Dallas Cowboys as a football team.
As a result, the football team appears to be falling further and further behind the progressive NFL teams who are adapting as new information becomes available. That might actually be a good thing for Elliott's fantasy potential, as the Cowboys had the third-lowest pass-to-run ratio in the NFL, at 1.09, last season.
Not only do they run often, but they're also good at it. In terms of our schedule-adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) -- which indicates expected points added to a team's scoring output -- they finished first among all teams. They also ranked first in 2016 and fourth in 2015.
We need to remember that Elliott missed six of their final eight games in 2017. While his presence may not have made the Cowboys a playoff team last year, it almost certainly would have increased their offensive production, as they averaged 24.4 points per game in the 10 games with Elliott and only 18.3 points per game -- a touchdown less -- in the 6 games without him.
The late season struggles of Dak Prescott are a concern. When digging into the games, however, we see that Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith missed four games. Smith also missed part of a fifth game and guard Zach Martin missed the greater part of a game as well.
In the two second-half games last year, with his entire starting offensive line playing the full game, Dak threw five touchdowns and no interceptions. They were easily his best games during the latter part of the season, and the continuity of the offensive line appeared to be very important both to Dak and the offense's productivity as a whole.
It is not entirely fair to criticize an offense for a stretch of games largely played without their star left tackle and star running back. You need stars, especially in Big D.
Lack of Talent
Remember, this is America's team, so they are absolutely loaded with star skill players, right? Well, here's a full and detailed list: Ezekiel Elliott.
Other than Zeke, there isn't a lot of top-tier talent taking the field at Jerry World. The Cowboys cut Dez Bryant, lost Jason Witten to retirement, and (though not as long tenured as the other two) failed to re-sign Alfred Morris this offseason. The intended receivers on 267 of the team's 485 targets (55%) from 2017 are no longer on the roster.
Jason Witten was the intended receiver on 87 of those targets. This is significant because while wide receiver targets are more likely to be soaked up by replacement wide receivers, a chunk of the abandoned tight end targets could go to the running back position in short-yardage situations and checkdowns.
It's a small sample size, but when high-volume tight end Rob Gronkowski missed time last year, the New England Patriots' running backs jumped from just over 9 targets per game with him to 13 without. Similarly, when Greg Olsen sat in 2017, Christian McCaffrey saw his targets increase from 5.7 per game to 8.1 per game.
The team did make a draft-day trade for Tavon Austin, and the initial thought is that he could factor in at running back. However, Rotoworld's Evan Silva brings into question any serious role for Austin at running back.
Initially sounded like #Cowboys wanted Tavon Austin at RB but OC Scott Linehan, plugged-in https://t.co/AUJwDiv7oP writer @BryanBroaddus & team WRs coach Sanjay Lal have all talked about Austin as a WR: https://t.co/HHd9jzLcCv
â€” Evan Silva (@evansilva) June 23, 2018
It is also being reported that Austin lined up mostly at wide receiver during the first few days of training camp this past week. Another piece of good news for Zeke owners and would-be drafters.
Despite being suspended for six games during the 2017 NFL season, Elliott had more rushing attempts than all but nine other running backs. The table below shows the total number of rushes and the rushing success rate -- the percentage of attempts that result in positive expected points -- for the 10 highest volume runners of 2017, sorted by rushing success rate.
|Player||Rushes||Rushing Success Rate|
Not only does he run the ball more than nearly everyone else but he does it at a very high success rate.
While he isn't thought of as a receiving back, Elliott had 38 targets in 10 games last year, including 5 games of 5 or more targets. The 70 targets to the running back position represented the lowest market share (14.43%) captured by the position in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's four seasons in Dallas. So there is absolutely room for growth in Elliott's target volume in 2018.
Elliott totaled 268 touches in 2017, ranking him 13th among running backs despite playing only 10 games. A model of weekly consistency, he ran the ball 20 or more times in 9 out of 10 games last season. That wasn't a fluke either, as Elliott ran the ball 20-plus times in 12 of 15 regular season games in his very successful rookie campaign.
What's all this mean?
2018 Fantasy Outlook
Volume is king in fantasy football, and all indications are that Ezekiel Elliott will routinely handle over 20 touches per game, with upside for more.
In standard leagues, Elliott has an argument for the first overall pick. The volume he is projected for, along with the rushing efficiency the Cowboys have shown in recent seasons, give him a great weekly floor along with a fantastic ceiling in weeks where he scores a touchdown (or two).
It is hard to be quite as optimistic in point per reception (PPR) leagues due to his projected targets being lower than that of his elite running back peers. In this format, Elliott is more suited to be the fourth back on draft boards, behind Gurley, Bell, and David Johnson. At the moment, that's exactly how he's being treated in average drafts.
If you're sitting with the fourth overall pick in a PPR league and the top three running backs go 1-2-3 right in front of you, you have a decision to make. The number one receiver, Antonio Brown is the main alternative with the amount of volume he sees. But if having a stud running back is important to you, take Elliott and reap the rewards.