Prior to 2020, Ezekiel Elliott was considered one of the premier running backs in the NFL. It was the case on the field, as well as in fantasy football lineups. During his first four years in the league, he averaged over 1,300 yards rushing and 12 total touchdowns per season. As a result, he became a lock to be selected in the first round of fantasy drafts. While his production did fall off last season, the narrative that Zeke might be “washed” is nothing more than speculation.
The former Buckeye and on-field author of “85 yards through the heart of the south” indeed struggled at times in 2020, but the depleted Cowboys roster and other factors (some of which were self-induced problems) must be taken into account.
What was once the best offensive line in the league, the Dallas Cowboys’ unit has been plagued by injuries in recent years. This was especially true in 2020. Last season alone, three of the 2019 starters combined to miss a total of 36 games. Tyron Smith and Zack Martin are preeminent players at tackle and guard, and they combined to miss 20 of those. While other running backs are able to produce at a high level with less talent in front of them, Dallas was sending out backups to open up holes for Zeke and protect star quarterback, Dak Prescott. I will get to Prescott’s impact later.
Rather than address the aging line or a struggling defense last year, the Cowboys instead went out and spent a first round draft pick on CeeDee Lamb in hopes of having an explosive air attack… and it worked. However, an increased emphasis on the passing game cut into some of Zeke’s opportunity.
The emergence of then-second year running back Tony Pollard had a similar effect — again, specifically related to the passing game. Pollard spent time as a wide receiver in college, and was brought in to fill a receiving role for Dallas. He played on almost 250 passing downs last year, keeping Zeke on the sideline when he could otherwise rack up valuable PPR points in fantasy. Elliott still accumulated 52 receptions, but that number was down significantly from 2018 (career high 77). Although he nearly matched his 2019 total (54), the yardage was a different story.
Zeke only accounted for 338 yards receiving last season, his lowest total since 2017 — a season in which he played just 10 games. Once Prescott went down with an injury, most of Elliott’s catches were desperate dump-offs from Andy Dalton, Garrett Gilbert, or Ben DiNucci. Who!?
The Prescott injury was a death-blow for Dallas, and had arguably the biggest impact on Zeke’s IRL and fantasy production. Already down parts of the front line, Prescott’s injury exacerbated the offensive issues. Prior to going down with a broken leg, the Cowboys QB was on an absolute tear. Not including the game in which he was injured, Prescott had three straight of at least 450 yards passing. He threw nine touchdowns in those games, and the team averaged over 36 points per.
After the unfortunate injury, the Cowboys went into a tailspin; unable to put up points or move the ball on a consistent basis. As a result, opposing defenses were able to focus almost exclusively on stopping the run. In weeks 1-5, when Prescott was on the field, Zeke had three games of at least 89 yards rushing and 24 total receptions. He did not have another 90-yard rushing game until week ten, and it took until after Christmas for him to reach 50 catches. Even worse, he did not have another rushing touchdown until his last game of the season! In ten games post-Prescott, Zeke was around RB25 (PPR) in fantasy rankings; a significant drop-off from the top three (standard and PPR) in weeks 1-5.
In addition to a depleted roster, the star RB has had other issues to deal with over the last few years. There have been off-field incidents and character questions that Elliott has had to answer for. I am neither judge nor jury, and Zeke has not been in any significant trouble, so there is not much to get into. But who knows what kind of mental toll it took on the running back, or how it affected his mindset for games. At the very least, it is fair to say that there may have been a maturity issue, and hopefully he has moved past some of those events.
It is also fair to say that Zeke did not look to be in the best shape last year. While his conditioning did not present a big hurdle at the beginning of the season, there is reason to believe that it had an effect on his performance as the year progressed. He just didn’t look like the same guy we were accustomed to seeing in Columbus, and in Dallas up until last year. I am not the only person who feels that way, as Zeke must have known or heard about it from others.
He has been seen all over social media, grinding through workouts and conditioning drills during the offseason. He looks great, and we will likely hear the proverbial “best shape of his life” chatter as the first kickoff approaches.
While fans and fantasy football players saw regression in 2020, there is just too much talent and past history of elite performance to jump off of the Ezekiel Elliott bandwagon just yet. He still finished last season around RB10-12 in PPR (leagues vary, so this is a safe average), despite missing one game himself and being significantly impacted by the injuries to his teammates.
Elliott led all running backs in snaps played — and looks to be in even better shape to carry the load this year. I believe that the production we saw in weeks 1-5 last year will be replicated in 2021. Dak Prescott and the offensive lineman should all be back and healthy, and Zeke will reap the benefits.
The Cowboys are paying him enough; they might as well get a solid return on investment and feed him the ball. I anticipate a return to form for the Ohio State legend, so fantasy football players would be wise to target him in the top ten of drafts.