What's the Fantasy Football Impact in Dallas of an Extended Ezekiel Elliott Holdout?

Ezekiel Elliott's possible holdout is a specter that hangs over the entire Dallas Cowboys organization. As was reported on July 29th, Elliott reportedly headed to Mexico with no intention to return to Dallas until a new deal was signed.

On the field, he’s no doubt one of the best and most durable backs in the league. But coupled with the possible season-long impact of Amari Cooper's recently announced plantar fascia injury, there are serious concerns about whether this will be another case of failure to launch in Jerry world. Because of this news, it is necessary to examine the ramifications of what an extended absence for Elliott would mean for this Cowboys team, and how we need to handle this situation in fantasy football.

Zeke Has a Case

Elliott’s potential holdout is being carried out based on the idea that his talent is such that it will compel the Cowboys to act and give him an extension with two years left on his current deal, which is set to pay him just under $4 million in 2019 before bumping up to a base salary of a shade more than $9 million in 2020, per Spotrac.

Zeke is a plus level talent. Based on some of the data we have available to us here at numberFire -- specifically our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can read more about in our glossary -- Elliott has recorded two of the top-20 seasons by Rushing NEP since being drafted in 2015 (among backs with at least 150 touches). His 2016 Rushing Success Rate -- or percentage of his carries that resulted in positive NEP -- of 47.04 percent was nearly seven percentage points above league average that year.

Last season, his Rushing Success Rate beat the league average by three percentage points, cementing his status as a plus contributor on the ground. When coupled with his first, second, and eighth rankings, respectively, in breakaway runs, evaded tackles, and breakaway run rate, per PlayerProfiler, it is easy to see that Elliott is a tier above the field as a runner.

Right now, he's not paid that way, however, with his 2019 salary ranking just 11th at the running back position -- behind the likes of Dion Lewis and Latavius Murray -- though his fifth-year raise will push him up into the top four.

Last year, we seemingly saw Elliott become a true all-purpose back on top of his ground-game prowess. Never before reaching the 40-target mark in either of his first two seasons, Elliott saw 95 targets last year (fifth in the NFL among backs) en route to a 77-reception year. Upon deeper study however, Elliott’s Reception NEP per target mark of 0.24 ranked last among all running backs who saw at least 50 targets. So his role as a receiver might be overstated, volume driven, and outright replaceable.

If the Cowboys view Elliott’s receiving contributions in a more positive light than his feats on the ground, as they should given their top-10 offensive line by adjusted line yards since 2013, then the spotlight must shift to the crew of replacements on the roster.

If Not Zeke, Then Who?

Tony Pollard

Tony Pollard was one of the most heavily used receiving backs in the NCAA during his collegiate career, registering 15.5 percent of targets in his offense (94th percentile, per PlayerProfiler). His 7.1 yards per carry in college was also a top mark against his class. It is plausible that Pollard might be a better receiving back than Zeke right now, and if Zeke misses games, Pollard might land a year-one pass-game role.

Mike Weber

Though Mike Weber's level of production at Ohio State couldn’t hold a candle to Zeke’s (17.8 percent college dominator versus 37.8 percent), there are enough similarities between the two to pique one's interest. If you consider that they matched each other’s 4.47 40-yard dashes, both have upper-percentile size adjusted speed scores, and also rank similarly in their body mass index, then you can start to wonder. If a largely similar offensive line could support good performances from DeMarco Murray and Alfred Morris in the past, then the only thing Zeke may have in his favor is a 12- to 15-pound advantage over the rookie.

Would Losing Amari Hurt More?

Dak Prescott

The potential absence and/or season-long hindrance presented by Amari Cooper’s injury is likely more of a threat to Dak Prescott's top-end late-round quarterback status than the possible absence of Elliott is.

Many have argued that Prescott struggled during Elliott’s suspension in 2017 -- which is true. But that is only part of the story. The Cowboys' offensive line was in shambles during that stretch, and Prescott was sacked 17 times in that span. His Passing Success Rate during this period was nearly three percentage points lower than his season average. If you couple this with the ineffectiveness of the connection between Dak and his number-one target that year, Dez Bryant, you have all the evidence necessary to label Zeke’s absence as no more than a confounding variable for Dak.

Michael Gallup

If Cooper were to miss time, then the Cowboys have a real problem on their hands. Though grading a rookie on his efficiency while he was miscast in his role as a number-one for the majority of last season is admittedly harsh, Michael Gallup didn’t have many positives from a statistical standpoint in 2018. He ranked outside of the top 50 in Reception Success Rate, Reception NEP per target, and yards per route run.

If there is a positive to take away from his performance last season, it is that Prescott showed a willingness to target Gallup deep. Gallups 14.7 yard average depth of target last season is evidence of that.

But Dak was a different -- much better -- player with Amari on the field.

Dak PrescottWithout CooperWith Cooper
Passing Success Rate40.60%49.00%
Passing NEP Per Drop Back-0.020.16

The loss of Cooper -- or playing with a banged-up Cooper -- has the potential to ding the fantasy value of everyone on this roster even more than the loss of Zeke would.

In Conclusion

Elliott is in a tough spot. With games against the New York Giants, Washington, and Miami Dolphins to start the season, there is a realistic chance the Cowboys enter Week 4 undefeated even without their star back on the field. The incentive to do a deal with Elliott simply isn’t there when one factors in that Dallas still owns his rights for two seasons.

Dak should be OK sans Zeke, as well. As long as Amari Cooper and Tony Pollard are ready to play, Dak should have all the weapons he needs to be a serviceable fantasy option. As center Travis Frederick prepares for his return from Guillain-Barre syndrome, Dak has the added benefit of a complete Dallas offensive line, the likes of which he hasn’t seen in a season.

Keep an eye on the rookies if Elliott sits, but otherwise all is well in Jerry’s world for the time being as long as Cooper can play.