Fantasy Football: Should We Worry About Ezekiel Elliott Because of Dallas’ Receivers?
The Dallas Cowboys are in for their most exciting season in recent memory, and once again, if you find yourself drafting in the top-five of fantasy drafts, Ezekiel Elliott is more than likely one of your primary targets. However, it's fair to question whether Zeke still has that same upside in this offense. After all, Dallas invested a first-round pick in wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to add him to a group that already included Michael Gallup and Amari Cooper.
As the focal point of the Cowboys' offense, Elliot eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and garnered more than 300 carries in each of the three seasons where he played at least 15 games. At 25-years-old, Elliott still has plenty left in the tank, but with Dak Prescott coming off a career year, and a head coaching change to the notoriously pass-heavy Mike McCarthy, will Zeke still be in a position to post that same level of production?
Let's take a look.
Christian McCaffrey is likely the best dual-threat running back, but if we're talking strictly rushing, Zeke has an excellent argument for being the best back in the league. Among backs with at least 150 carries, here's how Elliot has ranked in terms of Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) per carry and Rushing Success Rate (i.e., the percentage of carries that lead to positive NEP for a team’s offense).
|Year||Rushing NEP per carry||Rushing Success Rate|
Those are good for average ranks of 5.0 and 4.5, respectively. That's elite, no matter which way you slice it.
In Elliott's first four years in the NFL, he's recorded 1,169 carries, 5,405 yards, and 40 touchdowns on the ground. He's added 189 receptions for 1,619 receiving yards and 8 touchdowns for good measure. Through four seasons and 56 games, that's a total of 7,024 yards from scrimmage on 1,358 touches, and 48 total touchdowns -- breaking down to an average of 339.5 touches (292 carries), 1,756 total yards (1,351 rushing), and 12 touchdowns (10 rushing) per season. Those averages would be good for top-five fantasy production nearly every season.
Elliott's ability to stay on the field is clear as well -- he served a six-game suspension in 2018, but that was the only season in which he missed multiple games.
Can Elliot thrive on an offense that's more focused on passing the ball? Well, while Prescott has set career-highs over the last two seasons in just about every statistical passing category (including attempts), Elliott has still averaged 302.5 carries for 1,395.5 rushing yards and 9.0 touchdowns on the ground. In 2019, Prescott finished second in passing yards (4,902), fourth in touchdown passes (30), and sixth in pass attempts (596) last season and Elliott still finished second in the league in carries (301), fourth in rushing yards (1,357), and sixth in rushing touchdowns (12). No matter how much Prescott improved, Elliott's production remains unhindered.
Despite Dak's elite passing numbers, Elliott led all running backs in first downs with 78 on 301 carries in 2019, and Dallas ranked eighth in rush attempts and fifth in rushing yards.
"When you have a player like Zeke, the focus will be clearly on touches. Zeke needs to touch the football, and he will in this offense. He is definitely a primary focus," said new head coach Mike McCarthy. In 2014, despite having Aaron Rodgers and a loaded receiving corps -- Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and Davante Adams, to be exact -- McCarthy gave then-second-year back Eddie Lacy nearly 300 touches after giving him 319 totes as a rookie. And Elliott's a far more complete back than Lacy was.
As an added bonus, the Cowboys' offensive line is once again one of the best units in the league -- Pro Football Focus rated them third overall entering 2020 after a 2019 finish of fourth.
Elliott should be able to pick up right where he left off as one of the league's best backs.
Would it come as a surprise if Elliott's numbers increase as teams elect to defend the pass more? Elliott saw eight or more defenders in the box on 19.27% of his snaps in 2019, compared to 24.67% in 2018 and 35.1% in 2017, per NFL's NextGen Stats. Lamb's arrival could lower that number even more.
numberFire's model predicts Elliott to garner 286.6 carries for 1287.9 rushing yards and 10.5 rushing touchdowns, while also adding 58.6 receptions for 459.8 yards and 3.1 touchdowns. He's projected to finish second in the league in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. Our algorithm doesn't foresee any reasons as to why Elliott can't finish among the league leaders in most rushing categories.
I would bet that Elliott records his fourth top-five fantasy finish in five years, and will reward those who draft him at his current cost (3.11 in August). The additional threats in the passing attack could even be a positive as it forces opposing defenses to focus elsewhere. If you have a top-five selection and Elliott is available, don't think twice and make this any harder than it should be.