Fantasy football: Will Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott bounce back from his disappointing 2020?

Fantasy football: Will Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott bounce back from his disappointing 2020?

From Weeks 1-5 of the 2020 NFL season – in the games quarterback Dak Prescott started for the Dallas Cowboys – running back Ezekiel Elliott checked in at 22.3 PPR fantasy points per game. That put Zeke at RB3 behind Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook. However, after Prescott’s season-ending injury, Elliott’s per-game output dropped to 11.1 in a Dallas offense that lacked rhythm and definition.

Today, let’s focus on Elliott’s 2021 fantasy outlook, discussing why the Cowboys’ feature back should be in line to produce a bounce-back season given his total volume and role in one of the NFL’s most explosive offensive units.

Bet on the volume

Heading into the 2019 season, I saw Elliott as the league’s best running back. He had elite second-level burst, contact balance and the ability to create home run plays. And while Zeke did lack some explosiveness on tape last season, producing a career low 1.69 yards per carry after first contact, I’m betting on the volume this season for a back who still has top-10 traits at the position.

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In those first five weeks last season, Elliott averaged 22.6 touches per game for a Cowboys offense that was producing a league-high 74.2 offensive snaps per game. But after the injury to Dak? Zeke’s average dropped to 18.6 touches, as did Dallas’ offensive efficiency, slipping to 67.4 snaps per game.

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But with Elliott running behind a healthy Dallas offensive line, paired with the return of Prescott, we are looking at a floor of around 20 touches per game. The volume alone – in this up-tempo Cowboys offense – makes Elliott an obvious early pick in all scoring formats.

Red zone scoring upside

Elliott has been one of the league’s best in the low red zone and on the goal line during his time in the NFL. That’s where we see his lower-body strength, vision and pad level to find the end zone. Run power, inside zone, put your bigs on the field in a goal line formation more often. Just get Zeke the ball.

From Weeks 1-5, Elliott averaged 4.8 red zone touches per game, which topped the career high of 4.1 he set in 2019. And for his career, prior to the Prescott injury, Elliott was scoring once every 2.0 carries inside the 5-yard line. That’s roughly 11% better than the league running back average during his five seasons.

Now, we know those numbers dropped significantly after Prescott went down, as Elliott scored on only one of 11 carries inside the 5-yard line from Weeks 6-17 (a 9.1% conversion rate). But, think about this: with Prescott on the field, the threat of the QB run game comes into play in scoring position, which creates natural cutback lanes for Elliott off the mesh point. Plus, the Dallas offense in general is much more multiple and scheme-diverse with Prescott in the mix. With that healthy offensive front creating movement off the ball, I believe we will see Zeke’s red zone efficiency/scoring production climb again this season.

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The pass-game impact

The Cowboys led the NFL in 11 personnel (one RB, one TE) snaps last season, which puts three wide receivers on the field. And, that’s understandable given the talent the Cowboys have at the position with Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup.

So, where does that leave Elliott as a pass-game target? Think screens, swings and unders in the Cowboys’ system. High-percentage throws, with opportunity for Elliott to run after the catch, in addition to the shallow crossers where he can flex outside the formation on schemed throws for Prescott.

Last season, from Weeks 1-5, Zeke averaged 30.4 routes run per game, up from his career rate of 23.8. And his average depth per target was -0.94, almost a full yard behind the line of scrimmage. There are your targets on screens and swing passes. The way I see it, that’s free money in PPR scoring with Zeke being targeted on designed concepts or as a secondary option in the progression for Dak. I expect Elliott to record his fourth straight 50-catch season.

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Elliott’s draft value

With Elliott holding a current ADP of RB6 in ESPN leagues, we have to focus on positional value and depth. Yes, you could target an upper-tier wide receiver at the end of the first round. I get it. Go ahead and draft Tyreek Hill or Davante Adams to fill that WR1 slot on your roster.

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However, given the lack of running back depth in fantasy, I would still target Zeke here instead. The 2020 numbers with Prescott on the field tell us that Elliott will play a defined, volume role for a high-scoring offense. He should be viewed as mid-tier RB1 who could elevate even more given the scoring upside he brings inside the low red zone.