Ezekiel Elliott Is the Top Running Back in Fantasy Football
It's crowded at the top of the running back rankings entering 2016.
Credible cases can be made for Todd Gurley, David Johnson, and Adrian Peterson to be the first back off the board come draft day. Le'Veon Bell was also in the discussion until he was suspended for the first four games, and our own Jason Schandl has even argued that Jamaal Charles will be the top running back in 2016.
But the running back you should be eyeing in the first round of fantasy drafts is none other than Dallas Cowboys rookie Ezekiel Elliott.
Elliott, currently listed as the fourth running back selected, per Fantasy Football Calculator, enters a best-case scenario for running backs. The Cowboys have invested heavily in their offensive line over the past five years, using a first-round pick on a lineman in three of those five drafts, and each have become Pro Bowlers.
Add in La'el Collins and Doug Free, and the Cowboys enter 2016 with the league's highest-rated offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus.
Just two years ago, DeMarco Murray finished as fantasy football's top running back and led the league in rushing for the Cowboys with 393 carries for 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns. While it's irrational to project Elliott for a Murray-esque workload in his rookie year, the Cowboys have not been shy about their intentions to emulate their 2014 formula with Elliott in Murray's role.
The Cowboys view Elliott as critical to their 2016 success. So should you.
Volume, Volume, Volume
In April, the Cowboys caught some flak by taking Elliott fourth overall, but the Ohio State product projects to step in as a three-down back for the Cowboys.
David Helman, of the Cowboys team website, recently projected Zeke to see between 280 to 300 carries in 2016. That type of volume would rank third and fourth, respectively, in each of the past two seasons.
Sports Illustrated's Peter King took it a step further in a MMQB post in July, suggesting that Elliott could see an "Emmitt-like 375" carries.
Again, 375 carries is hard to believe -- only three backs have seen that kind of volume since 2006, one being Murray in 2014 -- but King's point is simple: the Cowboys are going give Elliott as much work as he can handle.
In 2014, the Cowboys ranked third in rushing attempts per game (31.8) and ran the ball on 50 percent of their offensive snaps.
The Cowboys' offense took a nosedive in 2015 following Tony Romo's injury, and with Darren McFadden and Joseph Randle at tailback, the Cowboys ranked 18th in rushing attempts per game (25.5). Still, those rushing attempts accounted for 42 percent of their offensive snaps, ranking the Cowboys 10th in terms of rushing percentage.
|Season||Rushing Attempts per Game (Rank)||Percentage of Running Plays (Rank)|
|2015||25.5 (18th)||42% (10th)|
|2014||31.8 (3rd)||50% (3rd)|
Over the final 11 games of the season -- once the Cowboys moved on from Randle -- McFadden averaged 18 carries per game. Only once did he receive fewer than 10 carries during that stretch. He averaged 11.8 fantasy points per game over that stretch, which included five weekly top-15 finishes and three top-10 scoring weeks.
For Elliott to reach 300 carries, he would need to see 18 to 19 carries a game, just what McFadden averaged down the stretch in 2015.
After a disappointing 2015, it's easy to forget how productive the Cowboys offense has been with Romo at the helm.
In 2014, the Cowboys offense ranked seventh in total yards per game (383.6) and fifth in points per game (29.2). To break this down even further, the Cowboys averaged 34.1 yards per drive in 2014, sixth-best in the league.
Per our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics, which quantify how many points above expectation a team earns based on down-and-distance and other in-game variables, the Cowboys owned the third-best offense on a per-play, schedule-adjusted basis in 2014 with a mark of 0.14.
In 2013, the Cowboys ranked 16th in yards per game (341.1) but 5th in points per game (27.4). The team ranked 11th in yards per drive that season (29.7) and 14th in Adjusted NEP per play (0.05).
When Romo is healthy, it's undeniable that the Cowboys offense has a history of big productivity.
Over his three years at Ohio State, Elliott carried the ball 592 times for 3,961 yards, good enough for a 6.69 yards per carry average. He scored 43 touchdowns and added 58 receptions along the way.
Furthering Elliott's opportunity in Dallas is a lack of depth behind him on the roster.
Following a resurgent 2015, McFadden is already banged up after breaking his elbow, and he's expected to miss most of training camp, putting his Week 1 status in question. Additionally, Lance Dunbar, who was utilized extensively as a pass-catching back last season, continues to rehab from a torn ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon.
The Cowboys have been encouraged by Dunbar's progress, but's he's been placed on the active/PUP list and is tentatively expected to miss the first six weeks of the season.
That leaves Elliott, free-agent signee Alfred Morris, and sixth-round draft pick Darius Jackson as the Cowboys' healthy running backs entering training camp.
A common concern with Elliott is that he's a rookie, an unproven commodity. But it's not as if rookie running backs have struggled to find success in recent years.
Todd Gurley and David Johnson -- both consensus 2016 first-round picks -- finished as top-10 backs last season. In 2014, Jeremy Hill finished 10th as a rookie, and in 2012, Doug Martin burst onto the scene, finishing second in fantasy points on the season.
Another concern with Elliott is the potential for Dez Bryant to vulture touchdowns in the red zone. Over the past five years, Bryant has caught 52 percent of his red zone targets, converting 29 of those 40 receptions into touchdowns.
But remember, in 2013 and 2014, the Cowboys ranked fifth in points per game each season. Elliott will have his opportunities.
In college, scoring from in close was no problem for Elliott. During his senior season alone, 11 of his 23 touchdowns came from within the five-yard line.
Elliott versus the Field
Make no mistake about it, David Johnson was electric last year when he took over as lead back for the Cardinals, averaging 19 fantasy points per game over the final five games, including one 40-point outing.
Our algorithms project the ever-consistent Adrian Peterson to be fantasy's number-one back in standard scoring leagues this year, one season after leading the league in carries with 327 and finishing as fantasy's second highest scoring back. But Peterson is entering his age-31 season and may lose some passing down work to Jerick McKinnon.
Finally, Todd Gurley is coming off a rookie year during which which he averaged 14.4 fantasy points per game -- fifth-best among running backs. While Gurley's talent places him among the best in the game, it's difficult to invest in a Rams offense with a rookie quarterback in Jared Goff and the league's 28th-ranked offensive line, according to Pro Football Focus.
With Elliott, 2016 is all about opportunity.
Cowboys Insider Bryan Broaddus sums up Elliott's situation perfectly in this response to a fan's question about the team's projected running back usage entering the season.
"You drafted him to play. If you have to hand him the ball a thousand times to win games -- do it. The way this league is set up you have these players for four to five years unless it is a quarterback. Use them up then go draft another one."
After the Cowboys used the fourth overall pick on Elliott, why is there any expectation other than Elliott seeing between 275 and 300 carries -- if not more -- behind the league's best offensive line?