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The Great Debate: Ezekiel Elliott (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 20, 2021
Ezekiel Elliott

Fantasy football draft season is officially here, and the time has come to refine your stance on players. What better way to do that than a good, old-fashioned debate! We’re rolling out our debate series where one writer higher on a given player will take on another that’s lower than our expert consensus rankings.

Up next, we have Zak Hanshew and Isaiah Sirois debating Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

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The Debate

After a disappointing 2020 campaign, Ezekiel Elliott enters 2021 ranked sixth in our PPR draft rankings, below the likes of Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry. That’s a bit low for me. From 2016 to 2019, Elliott finished no worse than the RB7 in points per game through Week 16. He even finished as the RB14 in points per game last year despite losing his quarterback and most of his offensive line.

That gets me to my main argument for Elliott: the Cowboys’ offensive line. From 2016 to 2019, the unit ranked top-10 in adjusted line yards, per FootballOutsiders. They finished top-five three times. Then, in 2020, the Cowboys lost center Travis Frederick to retirement and tackles Tyron Smith and La’El Collins to injury. Even All-Star guard Zack Martin went down, too. As a result, Dallas finished a disappointing 12th in the metric.

With Smith, Collins, and Martin back, Dallas’ offensive line should return to their former glory. The folks at ProFootballFocus agree — they rank Dallas sixth entering the season. Elliott, Dallas’ 90 million dollar man, could easily finish as a top-five running back with improved blocking in front of him. He may not have the big-play upside of guys like Saquon Barkley, but his floor makes him a safe early-to-mid first-round pick.

Plenty of good points, my worthy opponent. Dallas’ offensive line should be much improved in 2021, and their star quarterback should be healthy, though not all of Zeke’s troubles from a season ago were due to the offensive line or the absence of Dak Prescott.

Dallas’ 2020 defense was historically bad, allowing the most points and second-most yards in the franchise’s storied history. Negative game script certainly played a part in Zeke’s underwhelming play. Dallas threw the ball 639 times (second-most in the league) but ran only 430 times (15th most in the league). That resulted in Zeke running the ball a career-low 16.3 times per contest.

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking. Last season was just a one-off. The defense will get better, the improved offensive line will allow the Cowboys to run more successfully, and Dak Prescott’s presence will keep the defense honest. It’s hard to ignore Zeke’s declining workload in recent years, though. His rushing attempts have decreased in each of the last three years, and his yards per game have decreased every year since he was a rookie.

His target numbers have remained healthy, but his yards per reception have steadily declined since he was a rookie to last year’s career-worst 6.5. His 71 targets give him a safe floor at first glance, but it’s worth pointing out that Andy Dalton isn’t as good as Dak Prescott, and with an improved offensive line, perhaps Dak will take some more chances downfield to the elite receivers he has, rather than checking down to Zeke 4.5 times per game.

Zak is right that Zeke’s workload has declined, albeit marginally. Fortunately, that bodes well for his efficiency. His career lows last year in yards per attempt (YPA) and per catch (YPC) fall squarely on the offensive line. He recorded much more respectable figures when the unit was intact.

Here’s a for instance: in 2018, behind an eighth-best run-blocking unit, Elliott averaged 4.7 YPA and 7.4 YPC. He did so on 304 carries, a league-high by almost 50. In 2019, behind the second-best run-blocking unit, Elliott averaged 4.5 YPA and 7.8 YPC. He did so on 301 carries, the second-most by a margin of three. Last year, only 10 running backs with 150-plus carries were as or more efficient than that on the ground, and only three of those players were more or as efficient through the air. And while Zak is right that Elliott’s volume declined in 2020, his 244 carries still ranked fifth-most!

With marginally less volume (but still a large workload relative to the rest of the league) and a better passing game, Elliott should stay fresh while returning to 2018-19 levels of efficiency. He easily returned high-end RB1 value in those seasons, and he should do so again this year.

Isaiah, I can’t disagree with those points. Zeke has been historically great, and even his 2020 “down year” was still good enough to finish as the RB11 in half-PPR formats.

But we came here to talk fantasy value, right? I’d be out of my mind to say that Zeke is anything less than an RB1 for the 2021 season, but the question is, what is his ceiling and how will he perform relative to his peers? He’s currently the RB6 per ECR, and you’ve said that you think he’s going to be a top-5 back this season. I don’t see that happening with so many other quality backs in the NFL.

He’s behind Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Austin Ekeler, and Dalvin Cook because of that group’s insane passing-game usage. He’s behind Derrick Henry because Tennessee is a run-first team that’s committed to giving Henry as many carries as he can handle. If Aaron Rodgers returns to Green Bay, Aaron Jones makes a strong case to be taken ahead of Zeke, thanks to his usage and touchdown upside. Jonathan Taylor is in play to be taken ahead of Zeke because of his strong 2020 finish and Indy’s elite offensive line. While not involved much in the passing game, Nick Chubb still makes a case to go ahead of Zeke due to Cleveland’s success running the ball in 2020 and how big of a factor Chubb was in his team’s run to the playoffs.

So to clear things up, I’m not arguing that Zeke can’t be elite in 2021. I’m arguing that he doesn’t have top-5 upside. He’s a guy who could (and should) legitimately be taken as low as RB10 or RB11, and when debating the RB1 tier, a difference of five or six spots is tremendous.

The Analysts

Follow the production in the first round. There’s just one player who’s finished as a top-12 running back five times since 2015. That player is Elliott, and as crazy as it sounds, he wasn’t even in the league in 2015. “But Mike, Elliott tanked last year to RB11.” The entire team sank without Dak Prescott, but Elliott was the No. 3 running back in fantasy in the five games with him. If he keeps falling until the end of the first round, there will be a lot of championship rosters from that area of drafts.
– Mike Tagliere

Our perception of Ezekiel Elliott may be a bit skewed after his lackluster performance for fantasy last season. However, we need to remember the full context of the situation and recognize that Zeke was a top-tier fantasy option through the first five weeks of the season. He was the RB3 when Dak Prescott was healthy and on the field and averaged a healthy 19.9 fantasy points per game. With Dak presumably back and ready to go for Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season, Zeke’s a fantastic option again this season to lead your team as an RB1. If you happen to get him at a bit of a discount because of what happened last season, that’s just simply icing on the cake.
– Kyle Yates

The Public

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