Expert Faceoff: Valuing Ezekiel Elliott
We’re taking a look at one of the most polarizing fantasy players entering the 2016 season, Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott enters into one of the most favorable opportunities in the league, rushing behind the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive line. As such, and with the opportunity to be a bell cow for Dallas, Elliott carries an ECR of No. 12 overall and RB4. We’ve selected two experts, one that is higher than the consensus rankings for Elliott and one that is lower, to provide their dissenting opinions. Adam Inman of FFLockerroom has Elliott as the No. 5 overall player (RB2) while SoCalledFantasyExperts’ David Gonos lists the Cowboys’ rusher as the No. 25 overall player (RB12). Here’s a recent email exchange the experts had about their rankings for Elliott.
Ezekiel Elliott owners have hit the proverbial jackpot this year as the Dallas Cowboy rookie is poised to have a massive season in 2016. Even I’ll admit I was initially queasy about having a rookie bounce between my RB1 & RB2 in standard leagues. That said, Elliott is one of the most all-around talented players to come into the league in recent memory and has landed in a spot that regularly churns out careers bests at the position. If we look at the last two runners in Dallas (Demarco Murray and Darren McFadden) we can see a glimpse of what we can hope for from a player that is markedly more talented than either of the aforementioned plodders. We will get to exactly what we are looking for from the incredible young runner later. For now, let’s look at exactly what that position has netted owners in recent years as we all know how much situation matters in fantasy.
Consider this; Demarco Murray entered the starting lineup in 2014 for the Cowboys and proceeded to take the league by storm. He rattled off over 2,200 total yards and 13 scores while sporting a meaty 4.7 YPC. He never dipped below 4.1 YPC in his entire Dallas tenure. This same player left for a team with a much more “average” situation following the 2014 explosion and saw his overall production take a massive hit. Murray saw his total stats halved in almost every category, and he proceeded to run for over a full yard less per carry.
Last season, post Murray, the Cowboys ended up relying on the shell of Darren McFadden. This was a player that had been written off by a majority of fantasy owners as it had literally been years since he was effective as an every-down running back. At the end of the 2015 season, McFadden was sporting a career high in carries and his first 1,000+ yard season in over half a decade. He was also a mere four fantasy points away from being a top 10 fantasy running back.
If McFadden carried teams to championships, and Murray got himself ranked as the RB1 prior to last season, what’s the ceiling for a player who looks to be stronger in literally every phase of the game? Independent of Zeke’s talent, which rivals anyone we’ve seen in the last five seasons, the situation for running backs in Dallas completely reframes the way we should evaluate a rookie running back’s potential, especially one who is as dynamic a player as Elliott.
Entering the NFL Draft, some scouts compared him to Adrian Peterson, with great speed and the ability to play all three downs in the pros. Regarded as the best talent coming out of college, the hype had built around him so much so that he ended up being the No. 4 pick in the draft.
Of course, I’m talking about Darren McFadden.
You could easily have assumed this was all about Ezekiel Elliott, which is also true. But the point I’m making is – many shiny new rookies always look better to us than veterans that have already proven NOT to be Hall-of-Famers. In Fantasy Football, however, the hype surrounding Elliott’s entry into the NFL has grown to ridiculous proportions.
Consider this; never, in the history of modern Fantasy Football, has a rookie had a first-round ADP. Never. Not when McFadden entered the league and not when Reggie Bush entered the league. Not even when Adrian Peterson entered the league.
Does that mean a rookie can’t finish as a top-12 player? No. But it does mean for a couple decades now fantasy owners, as a group, have not considered a rookie as a first-round pick. Until now, and that’s a huge mistake in my book.
All very fair points. I was aware of the rookie ADP side (as it’s a common Elliott detractor point). I’d rebut there with it has never happened until it has, and if the fantasy football industry had known how quickly Todd Gurley would play they may have broken that trend last year.
The reality is the combination of his skill set, the best offensive line in the league, a team that wants to run the ball in order to hide a porous defense, and the utter lack of talent behind him means that Zeke likely has one of the highest ceiling/floor combinations in all of fantasy football.
As I said earlier, this is a new day in fantasy football. We have to know when a truly “special” talent meets a similar opportunity. And, when that situation arises, we need to be prepared to adjust or reframe our expectations/dogmas. In a running back by committee (RBBC) world, Elliott stands relatively unopposed at the top of the mountain, and he’s set up to take the fantasy football world by storm.
The Cowboys still have McFadden (the best running back in the history of the college that Jerry Jones went to), who is coming off the previously mentioned big year, and they signed Alfred Morris to a two-year deal in March. While this won’t necessarily lead to a RBBC, it’s not like he’s backed up by Robert Turbin and Jordan Todman.
The Todd Gurley Argument is exactly why EZ-E is over-hyped as a fantasy first-rounder. Nobody overreacts more than Fantasy Football players, and Elliott’s ADP is absolutely a reaction to the huge season by Gurley.
Outside of when Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson joined the NFL in the early ‘80s, Fantasy owners haven’t even thought about taking a rookie in Round 1 – until Elliott.
And I LIKE Elliott! … Just not in Round 1.
Take a stud receiver if you don’t like your RB options, then double-down on tailbacks later on.
Ultimately, for me, it’s about mitigating risk in the first round of a fantasy football draft. And although he’s a rookie, Elliott does exactly that.
- Situation: Best back on the team by far ✔️
- Three-Down Player: Great hands & excels in pass protection ✔️
- Scheme: Best O-line in the league and an atrocious defense means Dallas wants to be a run-first team. ✔️
- Investment: Dallas spent a top five pick on the guy, he’s going to be a bell-cow. (Side note: Dallas has only drafted two other RBs with similar draft capital, they’re both in the Hall of Fame.) ✔️
- Player Ability: He’s got everything needed to be an elite runner in the league, and he gets to do it in a place that’s turned mediocre players into stars. ✔️
I’ll 100% agree with David that a WR should likely be the first pick this year, perhaps even the first two-to-three picks (and my FantasyPros rankings reflect that). But the only running back I can even entertain taking ahead of Elliott is Todd Gurley, and his situation is an utter mess. If you land a pick in the mid-first and are looking for an impact RB1 then Elliott is your pick.
Of the 16 players that were the first rookies drafted according to ADP in the 16 seasons since 2000, only THREE have ended up as the highest scoring ROOKIE. Cadillac Williams, Knowshon Moreno and Eddie Lacy are the only top preseason rookies to finish as the top end-of-season rookies in that time span.
The point being – the one thing a veteran fantasy owner knows is that we really don’t know anything. We can only set ourselves up for success the best way we know how. Banking on a rookie as my best player is not how I’ll do that.
As far as mitigating risk goes, in my mind, there is nothing riskier than gambling that something that has never happened before will happen this year. A first-round ADP for a rookie is a huge risk, no matter how you slice it. There are just too many unknowns, including knowing how a college player suddenly reacts to being a pro, having tons of money, and being forced to learn a completely new system against world-class competition.
Going back to my very first paragraph, comparing Elliott’s arrival with McFadden’s back in 2008. McFadden was thought to be the very best of that RB class, which was absolutely stacked (Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice and Jonathan Stewart, to name a few), and he finished as the seventh-best rookie RB – and the 44th-best overall RB.
As I said, I’d love to draft Elliott in Round 2, but I’m never going to have the chance … which is fine by me.