Let’s just get this out of the way: I pounded the table for Ezekiel Elliott last year, and he came through... sort of. Zeke finished as a top-7 fantasy running back in 2021, in both standard and PPR formats. This was despite barely reaching 1,000 yards on the ground (1,002) and bringing in just 47 receptions (lowest total since 2017) — in 17 games!
His stat line was very similar to that of a down 2020 season, but he scored four more touchdowns, and was just flat-out more durable than some of his contemporaries. But high TD totals can be fool’s gold, and there were signs that Elliott could be in decline as a fantasy asset.
For starters, Elliott is going to be 27 years old on July 22 (happy birthday Zeke, don’t hate me). For most of us average folk, 27 is nothing. You’re just getting started at that age. But Elliott is far from average. He is a supreme athlete, who also happens to play a very physical sport. Running backs tend to age in dog years (on the field), and Elliott’s NFL experience has been comparable to that of a husky used in the Iditarod.
My point is that he has logged a lot of miles over the years. He led the NFL in carries in both 2016 and 2018, and likely would have done the same in 2017 had he not missed six games. He finally got a bit of a reprieve in 2021, averaging just 13.9 carries per game, but therein lies the problem. Elliott will likely continue to see his carries reduced, making him highly TD-dependent. He is finally getting the break he deserves, but it might have come too late. And it will almost certainly impact his fantasy football value.
The wear and tear of Elliott’s first six seasons seems to have taken a toll on his ability to produce explosive plays. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry (YPC) in 2021, placing him well outside the top-25 of those who carried the ball at least 100 times. He also averaged a career-low 6.1 yards per reception (YPR), with a 4.4 yard average depth of target. In other words, Elliott did not have many chunk plays, and was on the receiving end of primarily dump-off passes. Tony Pollard, on the other hand, averaged 5.5 YPC and 8.6 YPR.
Speaking of Pollard, Elliott’s younger, arguably more explosive teammate has seen a steady increase in his touches since entering the league in 2019. The Dallas Cowboys drafted the hybrid RB-WR in the fourth round, but he always had first-round talent. As a runner at Memphis, Pollard averaged 6.8 YPC on 139 career totes. He also came down with 104 receptions, often lined up as a WR. This jack-of-all-trades has slowly developed into a true, new school running back, and is a major threat to his backfield mate’s production moving forward. As far as the team is concerned (and likely Elliott as well), the dynamic duo is a great thing to have, but it will lead to the backs cannibalizing each other’s opportunities.
Pollard’s presence could also lead to an extension of Elliott’s prime (or near-prime). As one of, if not the, highest-paid RB in the league, the Cowboys want this former Buckeye to be successful. For a handful of years he was considered one of the NFL’s best, so I am sure they would love to keep him around for as many years as possible. But if he is unable to stay healthy, or at least reach a high floor production-wise, he is likely to be served his walking papers. Having Pollard in the fold could be of great benefit to all involved, but it will dull Elliott’s fantasy outlook.
So is this the end of Ezekiel Elliott, elite fantasy football asset? Personally, I think that it is. I would be shocked if he ends the 2022 season as a top-10 running back, but that does not mean he is without value. In my mind, Elliott would be an ideal RB2 — and he might even be more consistent than most owners’ RB1. Because you know that he is likely to see a ton of goal line carries, and as previously mentioned, he did enough to finish as a top-7 back last season.
The caveat is that his ceiling seems low, especially when compared to that of Jonathan Taylor, Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Dalvin Cook, and so on. That ceiling seems even lower when you factor in the continued emergence of Pollard. I expect Elliott to be given his fair share of looks, and as long as he remains healthy, he will never be written completely out of the gameplan. But there could be games in which Pollard is the hot hand, and Elliott is relegated to the bench for long stretches.
Zeke is currently being projected as a top-15 to top-20 RB. Somewhere in that neighborhood feels right. If you are aggressive with that position early, he is likely a round two or round three target. If you prefer to sit back and wait, maybe he falls to you in the third or fourth round, but as your top back. There are worse ways to build a fantasy team than drafting a notoriously (and recently) productive RB. But don’t let your affinity for Elliott cloud your judgement. If you draft him based on past performance, you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
However, if you pick him up with realistic expectations and a desire to watch one of your favorite former Buckeyes, then you should be good to sit back and enjoy the show.