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For Those Looking at Early-Round RB

In this throwdown, Jeff Donovan and John Holton debate two of the most polarizing players in fantasy football that are typically going in the middle of the first round to the early second – Ezekiel Elliott (ADP 1.06) and Lamar Miller (ADP 1.09). What merits can be had with each of these players, and can they be trusted as your first selection in your fantasy draft?

Ezekiel Elliott


Ask and you shall receive. The dream scenario all prospective Ezekiel Elliott owners could have hoped for. Jerry Jones doesn’t mess around. After going OL/DB in each of the past five seasons in the first round, the Cowboys decided to go for the home run by selecting Elliott No. four overall. There are a number of things to be intrigued by in this situation from a fantasy perspective, most of which you’re all aware of in some capacity.

  • The offensive line is as good as advertised. 2015 ranks along starting offensive line (per PFF) in run blocking:
    • LT – Tyron Smith – #1
    • LG – 2nd year OG La’el Collins graded out as the 45th OG overall as a rookie
    • C – Travis Frederick – #2
    • RG – Zack Martin – #14
    • RT – Doug Free – #38 among OT with 330+ snaps
  • One year removed from DeMarco Murray receiving the sixth most touches in NFL history (449).
  • Elliott’s skill set bodes well for three-down work – top graded running back in pass protection in ’16 rookie class.
  • Darren McFadden finished with 269 touches in 2015 (16.8 pg) despite only averaging 9.8 per game over the first five weeks. Averaged 20.9 once Joseph Randle went off the rails – over 16 games would have finished third overall among running backs in touches.

Recent history of the running back and what will be required for elite status

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As seen above, the major difference between finishing an RB2-RB4 over the past five years has been a sizable increase in workload, with a small jump in touchdown production. During that time, 11 rookie running backs have received at least 200 carries. Six of those rookies finished as a top-10 back, with three tallying top-five campaigns. Of those six, five finished with double-digit touchdowns. The only one that didn’t was Jeremy Hill (9), who ended as RB9. It becomes increasingly clear that for Elliott to provide a return on investment he will need to hit pay dirt frequently.

Roadblocks for success?

The presence of Alfred Morris and his prowess near the goal line will initially spook prospective Elliott owners. In Morris’ four seasons, he has converted a stellar 15 of 30 carries from inside the five-yard line for touchdowns. Now, now. This is in no way an endorsement for Morris as a goal line vulture. I do believe that Morris will at least factor into spelling Elliott here and there. That does not, however, mean that Elliott won’t receive the necessary workload, or valuable red zone looks to cement himself among the elite. As witnessed with the duos of Doug Martin and Charles Sims, or Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, a top-five running back can still emerge, unscathed.

Conclusion

While many will point to Elliott’s inexperience, Dallas’ running back depth, and murky quarterback situation, the fact of the matter remains. Elliott undoubtedly possesses the overall tools necessary to receive the majority of work on a team that can open VW-sized running lanes. Don’t get me wrong. I love Lamar Miller this season. He’s the RB4 in my current rankings. I just feel Elliott’s combination of talent, situation, and immediate opportunity has created the perfect oasis for fantasy success.

Lamar Miller


The Underused Star

If you weren’t the Lamar Miller owner in your league last season then you probably heard them complaining at one point or another about the lack of touches for their running back. It may have gotten annoying at some point, but if you take a look at the stats you can’t really say that they were in the wrong.

In total during the 2015 season, Miller posted a line of 872 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground, while tacking on another 397 yards and two touchdowns through the air. They were solid stats no doubt, and good enough for a sixth-place fantasy finish, but Miller owners couldn’t help but feel they had missed out on quite a lot more.

The reason? Miller was simply not given the amount of carries one would expect for a star running back, especially someone as explosive and talented as him. Overall he finished with just 194 carries, putting him at 18th overall. This was obviously a confusing number for his owners considering the incredible things he did with those chances.

Managers rostering Miller were ecstatic when Philbin, then-head coach of the Dolphins, was fired after week four. He had done a terrible job utilizing Miller up until that point, so most were excited to see what the back could do after the week five bye under a new coach. When the bye week finally finished, Miller returned to the field with a head of steam, posting 17.8 and 35.6 points in each of the next two games.

Those who had held on to Miller or traded for him were sure that this was it. Under a new coach, you would think a player of Miller’s caliber would receive the carries he deserved. So did he finish out the last two-thirds of the season as one of the most consistent and highest-scoring players in the league? Well…kind of. Miller had a number of other solid weeks, including two more over 20. Yet it always seemed impossible to gauge just how much of the workload he would receive each week. For instance, after one of those weeks scoring over 20 points (which Miller racked up on just 12 carries), he was given just nine total, giving his fantasy owners a measly 2.4 points.

Having Miller on your team last year truly was an exercise in frustration, a big part of which came from the fact that it really wasn’t his fault at all. Many owners were left cursing the Dolphins coaching staff and vowing to steer clear next season if Miller decided to stay in Miami.

Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet

Luckily, no one will have to draft Miller while worrying about his carries. During 2016 free agency the running back left for greener pastures, in this case, the ones located in Houston, Texas. In my opinion, this is a move that can only prove beneficial for Miller, and could catapult him to the top of the end-of-year rankings.

I’ve seen a lot of people worried about Miller being on a team where he will have a full workload. This is not something you should be worrying about, however. It’s true that Miller hasn’t had the same amount of carries as some workhorse backs, but even so, you can’t help but be impressed by the fact that he hasn’t missed a game in the last three seasons.

The absence of a few key players on the offensive line has recently raised concerns. Fortunately, offensive tackles Derek Newton and Duane Brown are set to return for week one. Overall, Miller should be looking at a much-improved situation in Houston.

Conclusion

While there may be some concerns to keep an eye on, there’s a reason he’s being taken in the first round of drafts. Miller’s change of scenery should prove a great benefit for the running back. I predict a massive improvement over his disappointing stat line last season. At the minimum he should have 1,200 yards on the ground with another 400 through the air, in addition to 15 TDs. While this should be a good floor, I think that Miller could end up finishing much better than even that. He’s a great pick and should be taken in the back half of the first round.

I have been playing fantasy football since 2000 along with many other fantasy sports. I have a warm place in my heart for 2QB/SuperFlex formats. I'm always available to chat football or answer any questions fantasy related. Follow @JeffDonovan_WA to send any questions, comments, or concerns my way.

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