Is running back Ezekiel Elliott stuck in a running back committee for 2016?
There is no way of knowing how the coaching staff will him, which leaves every Fantasy Football player with the same questions for next year. The only thing you can do right now is look back at previous seasons to try and get an idea of how he will be used.
I have to place a warning upfront, though, that it’s dangerous to base assumptions about future events on past results.
But that’s all we have right now…
Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys
When DeMarco Murray put up his insane rushing totals in 2014, he carried the ball 393 times. And between Murray, Lance Dunbar and Joseph Randle, Dallas rushed the ball 472 times.
Randle finished 2014 with 51 carries, and Dunbar finished 2014 with 29 carries.
So if Dallas is trying to re-create the magic it had with Murray, Elliott should have a lot of opportunities to touch the ball.
But will Elliott rush the ball 393 times in 2016? Murray’s carries in 2014 certainly qualify as an outlier, so it’s highly unlikely that he would finish the 2016 Fantasy Football season with 393 or more carries.
In 2014, the top-five running backs in terms of carries averaged 308. LeSean McCoy finished with the second-most carries (312) behind Murray. In 2015, the top-five backs with the most carries averaged 281 carries. Adrian Peterson had the most carries last season with 327.
Elliott doesn’t have to run the ball close to 400 times, however, to be successful…
In 2015, the five-highest scoring backs in standard scoring leagues averaged 261 carries. If he only ran the ball 261 times out of 472 rushing attempts, that would mean Elliott would only account for 55% of the rushing attempts. As a first-round pick, it’s reasonable to expect that Dallas wants Elliott to handle more than 55% of the rushing workload.
So the workload for all the backs in Dallas for 2014 certainly makes it seem like Elliott can have an immediate Fantasy impact.
But what about the 2015 season?
Dallas Cowboys: 2015 Rushing Totals
From Weeks 1-5, Randle touched the ball a total of 19 times in three out of five games. Throughout a 16-game season, 19 touches per game would have given him a total of 304 touches. He averaged 16.8 total touches between Weeks 1-5, which would have given him 268.8 total touches in a 16-game season.
That appears to be enough work to be Fantasy relevant, but here’s the issue: Darren McFadden and Dunbar could have really cut into Randle’s production in PPR leagues if he had played the entire season.
From Weeks 1-5, McFadden and Dunbar combined for a total of 33 catches. Randle caught a total of 10 passes during that time.
Now, Elliott isn’t known as a premier pass-catching back. He could still develop a bigger role as a pass catcher, but initially, it looks like the biggest threat to his Fantasy success will be McFadden and Dunbar stealing work in the passing attack.
Even though the Cowboys just snagged Alfred Morris, we all knew that Morris has been extremely ineffective as a receiver. He might give Elliott a breather and serve as a decent backup, but he’s not going to hurt Elliott’s Fantasy production like McFadden or Dunbar could.
Ezekiel Elliott’s Strength of Schedule
According to SCOUT’s 2016 Strength of Schedule, Elliott has the fourth-easiest schedule for running backs.
Elliott couldn’t ask for a nicer schedule to start the season.
Week 1: New York Giants– allowed the eighth-most Fantasy points per game to running backs in 2015
Week 2: Washington Redskins– allowed the 12th-most Fantasy points per game to running backs in 2015
Week 3: Chicago Bears– allowed the 11th-most Fantasy points per game to running backs in 2015
Week 4: San Francisco 49ers– allowed the most Fantasy points per game to running backs in 2015
I also like the fact that Tony Romo has the second-easiest schedule for quarterbacks. That means if Dallas can get a big lead, Elliott can just run out the clock and rack up easy Fantasy points. Romo and Dez Bryant will obviously have to be healthy for the passing attack to function effectively, though.
Where Should You Draft Ezekiel Elliott in 2016 Fantasy Football Leagues?
Last year, Melvin Gordon was a fourth-round pick and Todd Gurley was a fifth-round pick.
Elliott’s going in Round 4 on FantasyFootballCalculator.com right now, but I could see him being drafted in Round 2 or Round 3 as the season gets closer. The offensive line for Dallas, which ranked first in back-to-back year by ProFootballFocus, is huge reason why Fantasy players place so much trust in backs on Dallas.
If Murray did what he did in 2014, why couldn’t one of the top picks in the 2016 NFL Draft do the same exact thing?
While I believe there are a lot of Fantasy players who will reach for Elliott, I can’t say that I blame them this season.
The 2016 Fantasy Football season will be filled with more questions at the running back position then I can remember since I first started playing roughly 11 years ago.
Backs like Peterson, Jamaal Charles, and Matt Forte have been staples of Fantasy success, but they are closer to the ends of their careers than the start.
You have running backs who are emerging and could be the next superstars of the NFL like Gurley, David Johnson, Thomas Rawls, and Jeremy Langford, but are you going to fully trust them after just one season?
You also have guys like McCoy, Murray, and Eddie Lacy who could be bargains as second-round picks and third-round picks, but how comfortable do you really feel relying on them as your RB1?
If you’re looking between somebody like McCoy and Elliott in Round 3, why not throw the dice on Elliott? In terms of upside I would have to give the edge to Elliott, and in terms of downside, just draft McFadden to hedge your bet.
I think Elliott will start going higher in drafts as the season inches closer, so don’t be surprised to see him go as early as Round 2. But when you look at all the question marks surrounding the running back pool for 2016 Fantasy Football leagues, I wouldn’t have an issue drafting him in Round 3 or Round 4 if I was looking for a back in those rounds.