Ezekiel Elliott has been an elite fantasy football running back since he entered the league in 2016. Coming into 2020, Elliott had finished as a top five back in three of his four seasons. The only one he did not was when he was limited to ten games because of suspensions. Enter 2021. Elliott didn’t have a terrible season overall. He still finished top-ten in overall scoring at the position. However, he was nowhere close to his usual production.
It is well-known that a running back’s production can fall off a cliff suddenly, so many are taking Elliott’s subpar 2020 as a sign that it is time to sell him before they can. But how much of his season can be explained as a result of poor quarterback and offensive line play. It may be too early to pull the plug on the once-elite runner.
Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Football: The Running Back Still Has Top-Five Potential
Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Football Season in Context
There is no doubt that this was Elliott’s worst statistical season in basically every category. Despite appearing in all but one game on the year, Elliott failed to top 1,000 yards rushing. In fact, his 979 yards on the ground were fewer than he gained in 2017 when he only played ten games. His 4.0 yards-per-carry was also a career-low. Finally, Elliott only had two 100-yard rushing games. In terms of points, Elliott still managed an RB10 finish in half PPR. However, his overall average points-per-game (PPG) was much worse. He finished with 13.2 PPG which was fourteenth for backs who played at least nine games.
But context is also important here. Although Elliott’s yards-per-carry is relatively identical (4.09), for fantasy football purposes his production was much better. This was mainly due to the fact that he scored 5 of his six rushing touchdowns during that span. Additionally, six of his eight total touchdowns came in his first five games. Looking at this span, it puts Elliott to a healthy 19.9 PPG. That put him at fifth best in the league during that span and third in total points.
Speaking of total yardage. Elliott’s receiving totals were much better when Prescott was the team’s starter. Elliott had 173 receiving yards in five games, which was more than half of his total on the year. In three of those five games he had at least 30 yards and he only had one game with under 24 yards. For the rest of the year, Elliott only had two games where he even went over 20 yards. He also never totaled more than 34 yards during that span.
Looking Towards the Future
Looking strictly at the information above, it seems likely that Elliott can return to form with a healthy Prescott under center in 2021. After all, he is still only 25 years old, which in football terms, is still lightyears away from the dreaded age-30-drop that spells death for most runners. In addition, it wasn’t just Prescott that he was missing. The Dallas Cowboys were also a turnstile on their offensive line, suffering a plethora of injuries. So, if the team can field a healthy line in addition to bringing back Prescott, Elliott was have a full supporting case again akin to his first four years in the league.
Nevertheless, there are a ton of unknowns that give credibility to the concerns over Elliott’s viability moving forward. The most pressing of them is Prescott’s status as the team’s quarterback. Some think the Cowboys might let Prescott walk after this year and move on. Andy Dalton got an extended tryout with the team, and was an obvious step down. On the free agent market, there aren’t many good options to replace Prescott, and the team did just well enough to put them out of contention for a blue-chip quarterback prospect in the draft.
If Jerry Jones can’t get a long-term deal done with him, there is always the option of a second-straight franchise tag. However, there is mutual interest from both sides. Dallas has offered Prescott a few different lucrative contracts the past two seasons, but it did not quite fit what Prescott felt he was worth. However, the five games he appeared in last season should tip the scale in favor of what Prescott wants. There is a better chance than not that Prescott is the team’s quarterback long-term.
A Case Against an Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Football Bounce Back
This is the part where data does not favor Elliott. In recent history, the running back that comes to mind that was once elite and fell off a cliff is David Johnson. Johnson carried fantasy football teams to championships in 2016 when he totaled over 2,000 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns. The next year he got hurt week one and hasn’t had a 1,000 yard rushing season since.
Todd Gurley is another once elite back who has fallen into obscurity. After two straight seasons of RB1OVR status, Gurley barely made it over 1,000 scrimmage yards in his fifth year in the league. After the Los Angeles Rams let him go, Gurley went to the Atlanta Falcons last season. He averaged a meager 3.5 YPC and cemented that he is not the same player anymore. Gurley is only 26 years old.
A Case For an Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Football Bounce Back
The most recent bounce-back season for a running back that posted elite numbers is Doug Martin. As a rookie, Martin rushed for 1,454 yards and added another 472 through the air. The next two seasons, Martin wouldn’t even combine for 1,000 rushing yards total. But he found his form again his fourth season, getting back to 1,400 rushing yards. This sounds promising for Bell. However, Martin again followed up that season with two straight sub-500-yard years. He would never even sniff 1,000 yards on the ground again.
One of the best success stories with a running back not only bouncing back, but getting even better is Marshawn Lynch. Lynch started his career with over 1,000 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two years in the league with the Buffalo Bills. Then things went downhill as Lynch only rushed for 450 yards and two touchdowns year three, and then 164 yards in four games with the Bills the following year. He was traded to the Seattle Seahawks, where he had a solid rest of the year. However, he exploded from there, racking up four straight seasons with at least 1,200 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Bottom Line
When it comes down to it, it is impossible to know what will really happen with Ezekiel Elliott in fantasy football. The situation he was in last season gives him somewhat of a pass for his decreased production. With a healthy Prescott and revamped offensive line, the team has a bevvy of weapons at the receiver position to keep defenses from stacking the line against Elliott. He should every opportunity to get back to top five status next year.
At the same time, historical data shows trends against most running backs getting back to elite status even after one down year. Gurley and Johnson are two runners that come to mind recently in this regard. Martin gives hope to people, but he really only had one more good year, which doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence for those with him on their dynasty rosters.
The closest situation to compare Elliott to is that of Lynch’s. Lynch was in a bad place on a poor Bills team. Once he got to the contending Seahawks, things started to look up again. In that regard, those that believe in Elliott’s potential, may be able to buy him at a value. Perhaps trade away an aging veteran that has more of a cemented downward outlook for him. Or, bundle a few lower ceiling players. It is risky, but premium running backs don’t come easy. At the very least, Elliott should provide a decent floor next year.
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