How to Approach Ezekiel Elliott’s Holdout (2019 Fantasy Football)
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One of the big dilemmas facing fantasy owners in 2019 is the contract status of Dallas Cowboys star running back Ezekiel Elliott. He has been one of the most productive fantasy players in the NFL the last three years and has finished second, 10th, and fifth the last three seasons in total fantasy points scored among running backs. The year he finished 10th, he played in only 10 games due to a six-game suspension under the Personal Conduct Policy. He is one of the most talented running backs playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, which is a perfect combination for consistent stellar fantasy production.
However, a great 2019 fantasy season for Elliott is currently in jeopardy due to a contract dispute. He is in the fourth year of his rookie contract and is due $3,853,137 in base salary, per Spotrac.com. The Cowboys also hold a club option for 2020, when Elliott would have a base salary of $9,099,000, which is a very favorable cap number for the Cowboys.
Elliott is only 24 years old and he already has tallied 5,247 yards from scrimmage and 34 total touchdowns in just 40 games. It is no wonder that Elliott is anxious to redo his contract and cash in on three monster seasons where he has been the focal point of the Dallas offense. It is also no wonder that Dallas would rather him play under that rookie deal while they renegotiate the contracts for quarterback Dak Prescott and wide receiver Amari Cooper, two players who are also looking to cash in after outperforming their rookie deals.
Contract disputes always create a lot of anxiety among fantasy owners. Nobody wants to take a player in the first round that misses games due to a holdout. At the same time, holdouts that seem poised to last into the regular season have a funny way of being resolved on the eve of the regular season. Who wants to miss out on drafting an elite player and have him needlessly fall to someone in the later rounds, impacting the balance of power in a fantasy league? It creates a tricky situation where fantasy owners must predict how a contract negotiation will progress when they are not privy to the negotiations and they have no idea when one of the parties will cave and make a deal.
Was Le’Veon Bell’s Holdout Any Different?
This issue is fresh in fantasy owners’ minds due to a contract dispute that was a bombshell in fantasy football last year. Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire 2018 season in a contract dispute. Many fantasy owners picked him early in the first round, thinking he would only miss the first week of the season and that he would be back in Week 2. Bell did not come back in Week 2 or Week 3 and, next thing you know, it was Week 17 and he had sat out the entire season. Bell ended up being a wasted first-round pick in fantasy football, which was a huge setback for even the best fantasy owners.
Bell was in a much different situation than Elliott is this year because Bell was not in his rookie deal last season. Bell was a second-round pick in 2013 that had played through his entire rookie deal. After that contract expired, he was franchise tagged in his fifth year and he was entering his sixth year in 2018 with a second franchise tag. Bell technically was not under contract last year, because he never signed his franchise tag tender. He also would have been due even more money under a third franchise tag and he decided it was worth it to sit out a year, avoid a serious injury, and hit free agency with no chance the Steelers would tag him a third time.
Bell lost a lot of money by sitting out the entire season. First, he turned down a five-year deal worth $70 million and $33 million in guaranteed money over the first two years of the deal before the end of the negotiation period allowed under the franchise tag ended. He then lost $14.5 million in guaranteed money under the franchise tag by failing to sign his franchise tender. The reward was being able to enter free agency in 2019, however, when he signed a four-year deal with the New York Jets for $52.5 million with $35 million guaranteed. At the end of the day, sitting out allowed him to sign that big deal, and he was able to control his own destiny in free agency.
Elliott is not refusing to sign a franchise tender, hoping that a year away from football will allow him to cash in during the free agency frenzy of 2020. Elliott is under his rookie contract and his contract is subject to tolling. If he sits out the 2019 season, the $3.853 million he is set to make this year would become his 2020 base salary and his $9.099 million fifth-year club option would become his base salary in 2021. Elliott needs to play this year to be in a position to get franchise tagged or enter free agency and sitting out the season only keeps him in the bad situation he is in for another year. He would forfeit almost four million dollars to be in the same situation in 2020 if he sits out the season.
The only leverage that he does have is that he could do what Vincent Jackson did back in 2010 when he was at an impasse with the Chargers over a new contact. He could holdout for nine games this year and report in the 10th game, potentially torpedoing a playoff season for the Cowboys. Only appearing in six games would minimize his injury risk and he would prevent his contract from tolling. Sitting out a bunch of games could cost the Cowboys wins and panic them into giving him a new deal. Other than a partial holdout, Elliott has no choice but to play by the 10th game of this season.
Even though this situation is different than Bell’s situation, that is still a lot of risk for fantasy owners. Nobody wants to draft a player and house a dead roster spot for nine weeks and hope that Elliott has a significant role at the end of the season. Most leagues have only 13 to 14 games in the regular season and fantasy owners cannot afford to use a first-round pick on a player that only plays a few games before the fantasy playoffs. By the time the 10th game arrives, the fantasy owner that drafted Elliott in the first round may be only 4-6 and the playoffs may be an afterthought at that point.
When Will the Holdout End and Who’s the Handcuff?
My opinion is that this is likely resolved very late in the preseason or very early in the regular season. I could see Elliott sitting out the first game or two of the season to try to force a new contract like Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith did back in 1993, but I do not think the holdout will go past September. Either the parties reach a new deal on the eve of the season or the holdout probably only lasts a couple games and they try to work out a new deal next offseason. That would be similar for fantasy owners to the Bell situation in 2015 when he was suspended for the first two games and fantasy owners had to draft Bell in the first round and have running back DeAngelo Williams on the roster for the first two games of the season to navigate the suspension.
Unfortunately, the handcuff situation in Dallas is not as clear cut or as attractive as the Steelers’ situation was back in 2015. There are two options for the handcuff and both of them have risk. The first is veteran running back Alfred Morris and the second is rookie running back Tony Pollard. Both players have their pluses and minuses and neither is likely to be the same player as Elliott.
Morris filled in for Elliott during his 2017 suspension and had 115 carries for 547 yards and one touchdown that year. I do not see much upside in Morris. He had one monster game against Washington in 2017 with Elliott suspended, tallying 27 carries for 127 yards and one touchdown in that game.
In the other five games, he failed to eclipse 100 yards rushing or score a touchdown. Morris is now two years older and slower and he would be a low-upside option that does not have enough big-play ability or touchdown-scoring ability to be an elite fantasy option. He is on that Cowboys roster because he knows the offense and they know he can give them some reps if they need him. He is not there to be a bell-cow back in Elliott’s absence.
I think the better handcuff is Pollard. He is more unknown and a riskier pickup, but he also has a lot more upside. He has good size at 6′ 0″ and 215 pounds. He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds and he posted a 121″ broad jump and a 35″ vertical jump at the 2019 NFL Combine.
Pollard was also productive as a dual-threat back, tallying 552 yards rushing, 458 yards receiving, and nine total touchdowns at Memphis last year. He also had 1,010 yards from scrimmage, despite having only 78 rushing attempts and 39 receptions. He is a player that could have some big-play ability and fantasy viability filling in for Elliott early in the season. Even if Pollard sees only 10-12 touches per game, that may be enough for him to have a fantasy impact.
When Should You Take Elliott?
That leaves a final question — where does Elliott go in a fantasy draft with this contract dispute clouding his fantasy value? I currently have Elliott as the sixth-ranked fantasy player in half-point PPR leagues.
I would probably have him as the fourth player if his contract was resolved and he was certain to play in Week 1. If he were to holdout in the regular season and miss real games, I would rather have Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson and Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins. After that, I probably would just take him in the middle of the first round and hope I can figure it out for a couple weeks if his holdout spills into the regular season.
The reason I am thinking he is still worth that high of a pick is the 2017 season. Elliott ran out of appeal options that year after kicking his six-game suspension down the road and he was finally suspended from Weeks 10-15. Elliott still scored 190.2 fantasy points in just 10 games and he was the 10th-ranked fantasy running back and the 21st-ranked flex option. He is just too productive of a player and a known commodity to wait until the second or third round to draft when he can score that many points in just 10 games.
Fantasy owners in deeper leagues with few playoff spots may not want to take Elliott in the first round and risk a slow start and no playoff berth. All fantasy owners will have to weigh the size of their leagues, the number of playoff spots, the number of bench spots available, and whether he or she can stash Elliott on IR until he is back instead of wasting a bench spot. Those factors could cause him to fall until the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round.
I would be shocked if he made it past the 15th pick. The reason I use that as a baseline is that Patrick Mahomes currently has an ADP of 16 and I think most fantasy owners will go with Elliott over Mahomes at that point, because of the depth of the quarterback position. There are just not enough slam-dunk prospects for a player that has had the success that Elliott has had over the last three years, combined with the expected elite production he is expected to have this year, for fantasy owners to watch him slide deep in the fantasy draft.
Somebody is going to fall in love with him after he slides out of the first four picks. My guess is that point will be somewhere between the sixth and 10th pick with the floor being the 15th pick. Elliott missing regular-season games is still more valuable in fantasy than most fantasy players that play a full season.