During the first round of the NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth overall. He became the highest drafted running back since the Browns picked Trent Richardson third overall in 2012. We all know how that turned out, but Elliott is a much more complete and all-around prospect than Trent Richardson and Elliott is entering a prime situation in Dallas with one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, a solid QB in Tony Romo, and a good outside receiver in Dez Bryant. With the combination of these factors, Ezekiel Elliott is now being drafted as the 8th overall player and the 3rd running back after Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley as the Zeke Elliott hype train reaches full speed.
Ezekiel Elliott’s value has significantly shot up since he was drafted into the ‘perfect’ situation and he is entering the 2016 season with high expectations. The crazy thing about all of this is that some of this hype may be warranted. In 2014, Tony Romo’s last healthy season, DeMarco Murray had 449 touches, 2,261! total yards, and 13 touchdowns amassing a total of 294.1 fantasy points. He averaged 0.66 fantasy points per touch on an amazing 28.1 touches/game, both top numbers in the last couple of years. Looking back at 2015, where Romo and Dez both missed significant time and the Cowboys lacked talent at RB, Darren McFadden, and Joseph Randle were very productive runners. McFadden finished the season as the 13th overall RB, but if you combine the fantasy points Joseph Randle had in Weeks 1 – 6, 64.1 points, 401 total yards on 86 touches, with McFadden’s 155.7, Run DMC would have had, 219.8 fantasy points, good for RB 3 numbers. They combined for 0.60 points/touch (365 touches), a very similar rate of production to what Murray produced in 2014. So even in a year where everything (use your imagination) hit the fan, the Tony Romo/Dez Bryant injuries, the combination of Joseph Randle and Darren McFadden, who are nowhere near as talented as Ezekiel Elliott, would have produced the RB 3 season.
The Cowboys did not make any offseason moves impacting their amazing starting offensive line that was ranked as the #1 pass and run blocking in the NFL by PFF Offensive Line Rankings in 2015. The Cowboys actually improved their 2014 rank where they were the #1 overall o-line, but the #4 pass blocking and the #2 run blocking unit. The Cowboys line works great together and open holes that even you and I could run through for a 1,000 yards making them an awesome team to watch work. And it’s not like Elliott has Trent Richardson’s vision, he can find those holes and will use them to their fullest opportunity.
Speaking of that monster O-Line, the Cowboys have had a 1,000-yard rusher and 300-yard receiver at running back for the last three years, or since they drafted Travis Fredrick, their Pro Bowl center. Therefore lesser talents than Ezekiel Elliott, such as DeMarco Murray and Darren McFadden were ultra productive and Elliott’s play style meshes very well with what the Cowboys O-Line is built for. Elliott is a quality receiving back with the ability to successfully run up the middle as well as between the tackles, and to the outside. The combinations that the Cowboys use, Travis Fredrick at Center, Tyron Smith at LT, Doug Free at RT, La’el Collins at LG, and Zach Martin at RG, complement the running style Elliott is great at and will continue opening holes for him like they have their whole career. So everything about the offensive line lines up for Elliott to have a fantastic season, but what about the other running backs in Dallas, Darren McFadden, and Alfred Morris?
Darren McFadden had one of the best seasons of his career last year, rewarding the Cowboys for their faith in him by producing with the opportunities he got. And Alfred Morris, conversely, had one of the worst seasons of his career and went to Dallas on a 2-year contract without much money attached. However, these two backs are nothing to worry about. After drafting Elliott, Jason Garrett had this to say about Ezekiel Elliott, “You get more plays on offense, fewer plays on defense, and that allows your defense to play at a higher level. It’s similar to how we played a couple years ago, when we ran the ball so effectively — and I thought it had a really positive impact on everybody on our team. We believe Zeke gives us a chance to do that.” Both Jason Garrett and Jerry Jones have expressed a belief that Zeke will help make their passing game more efficient and productive. Jerry Jones also pointed out that he believes that there is less of a learning curve for high-end RBs into the NFL than other positions, hinting at a large workload for Zeke. From drafting Elliott high to expressing how he can ‘help their defense’, the Cowboys are gearing up to give Zeke a heavy workload to help both the Cowboys and fantasy owners everywhere.
So when considering Zeke for the RB 1 position you really have to consider who else would take that position. As of now, the top other running backs in dynasty are Le’Veon Bell and Todd Gurley. First of all, Bell, he has been the close to the consensus best RB in the NFL the last two years, however, he hasn’t been completely healthy over the course of his career. He played 13 games in his rookie year (2013), 16 in 2014, and just 6 in 2015 after being suspended for the first two games of the season and then missing half the season with a torn MCL. This was the second knee injury he suffered in two years, spraining his knee in a playoff game, as well as a Lis franc injury in 2013 where he missed the entire preseason. Even with all of his otherworldly talent, I can’t trust Bell as the RB 1 in dynasty, due to his extensive injury history. However, I can understand the argument for Bell as he has averaged no less than 18 rushes per game, and no less than 4 receptions since his rookie year. He is one of these rare talents, a player who could join the 1,000/1,000 club this year, with 1,000 yards rushing and receiving and somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 total touchdowns. Todd Gurley is the other recent running back who favorably compares to Ezekiel Elliott in both in age and draft position. Gurley’s 2016 was fantastic, rushing for 1,106 yards on 229 carries and scoring 10 touchdowns, Gurley also caught 21 passes for 188 yards while starting 12 games. Gurley’s main strength is as a bruising, punishing runner who receives 20-25 carries per game. He is competent in the receiving game, but Gurley is not the type of back who will catch 50-60 passes in a season. But that’s exactly what Elliott can do, Zeke is an all around back who succeeds at every facet of the running back position. Elliott can run inside, outside, pass block, and catch plenty of passes out of the backfield. While Elliott may never put up the pure rushing statistics of an Adrian Peterson or Todd Gurley he could post Le’Veon Bell type receiving numbers with similar rushing numbers.
When considering age, which I do not factor as much into my dynasty decisions as others, Ezekiel Elliott is crazy young. He is the youngest member of the top 5 running backs at 20, he will turn 21 in the middle of July. Todd Gurley is in the same age range, currently 21, but will turn 22 at the beginning of the season. Le’Veon Bell, David Johnson, and Lamar Miller will be 24, 24, and 25 respectively at the beginning of the 2016 season. This factor does not play much of a role in my decisions on who to draft in a startup or a rookie draft, but there is something to be said for drafting a player and having him play for you for the next 8 years.
Elliott is entering the greatest running back situation in the NFL and with his skillset and how the Cowboys have recently been successful, by ramming the ball down their opponents throat, is a great indicator of the possibilities of Elliott’s success, especially with how well recent backs have fared in Dallas under this system. I cannot give Elliott the RB 1 overall position in dynasty over Todd Gurley, despite all it seems he can do, because I haven’t seen it and college prospects aren’t always what they seem, looking at you, Trent Richardson. However, if Elliott can put a stat line similar to Gurley’s 2015, he could be the RB 1 in dynasty, for multiple years, because of his proficiency in all areas of the running back position.