Could Jordan Howard Be Better Than Ezekiel Elliott?

Jordan Howard vs. Ezekiel Elliott

Ezekiel ElliottThe famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz wouldn’t be able to make a case good enough to change people’s opinions on Dallas Cowboys newest running back Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott is exceptionally talented and as well-rounded a running back as you’re going to find in this years NFL draft, but he may not be as superior as people give him credit for.

Elliott landed in the best possible place for a running back, especially for fantasy purposes, but is he the most talented RB coming out of the draft or even the Big Ten?

Background and Achievement Comparison

Ezekiel Elliott came to the Buckeyes as a four-star recruit with scout.com ranking him as the ninth best running back coming out of high school. During his freshman year, he ran behind future second-round draft pick and current 49er Carlos Hyde. In 2014, Zeke took over lead back duties and rushed for 1,878 yards on 273 carries and 18 TDs. He followed his sophomore performance with 1,821 yards on 289 carries and 23 TDs last year.

A sure first-round talent, many were still a little surprised when the Cowboys passed on elite defensive talent and used the fourth overall pick to add Zeke to a backfield that included veteran stalwarts Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden.

Jordan Howard began his college career in 2013 with the University of Alabama-Birmingham (UAB) who were patient as he recovered from a torn meniscus and stress fracture in his pelvis he suffered during high school.

Jordan HowardHoward broke UAB’s single-season rushing record his sophomore year with 1,587 yards on 306 carries and scored 13 TDs on his way to All-Conference USA honors. His record with the Blazers will remain safe for quite some time with the decision to disband the UAB football program in 2015. Howard transferred to Indiana and picked up where he left off earning Big Ten all-conference honors with 1,213 yards on 196 carries. His junior year was truncated by an ankle injury he suffered against none other than Ohio State and a nagging knee injury that required surgery in November. Initially projected as a second- to third-round draft pick, injury concerns precipitated a slide to the Bears who drafted him in the fifth round. He joins Jeremy Langford and Kadeem Carey at the top of the Bears’ depth chart.

Tale of the Tape

Measurables Ezekiel Elliott Jordan Howard
Height 6’0″ 6’0″
Weight 225 230
Hand Size 10.75″ 9″
40-Yard Dash 4.47 sec 4.59 sec
3-Cone DNP 7.14 sec
Short Shuttle DNP 3.14 sec
Broad Jump 118″ 122″
Bench Reps DNP 16
Verticle Jump 32.5″ 34″

You can see the difference in 40 times played out on the field. Zeke rarely gets run down once he breaks through the second level, but Howard lacks top end speed and can get caught from behind. On the other hand, Howard’s broad jump and vertical jump scores show up in the visual form with two or three defenders being pushed or dragged for extra yardage with regularity. It often looks like Howard and his churning legs are encased in defenders while moving up the field.

Strength of Schedule

According to the Sagarin strength of schedule in 2015, Ohio State actually had an easier schedule than Indiana. Indiana had the 54th toughest schedule and played four teams in the top 30 while Ohio State had the 60th toughest schedule and played against three top 30 teams. Indiana and Ohio State also played against each other with Ohio State winning 34-27.

Offensive Line

Offense Adj. LY Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk
Indiana 108.2 35 69.80% 38 19.10% 59
Ohio State 120.2 7 77.20% 7 17.90% 42

*Excerpt from the football outsiders O-Line rankings

The Buckeyes featured an offensive line that included All-Big Ten first-teamers Taylor Decker at tackle and Pat Elflein at guard. OSU also had TE Nick Vannett who was selected in the fourth round by the Seattle Seahawks. On the Indiana side, guard Dan Feeney received second-team honors on the All-Big Ten team.

The offensive line talent showed up in offensive line rankings. Football Outsiders ranked Ohio State’s squad 7th in the nation with an Adjusted Line Yards (Adj LY) Score of 120.2. Adj LY takes into account the strength of the opponent and generates a score as a means to compare apples-to-apples. A score of 100 is average with anything higher above average.

The Indiana Hoosiers scored an Adj LY of 108.2 and ranked 35th. Howard played on a team with an inferior offensive line against a tougher schedule, yet still averaged 134.8 yards per game-good for the 9th best in in the nation and second in the Big Ten.

2015 Head-to-Head Stats

Average yards per carry can be a really deceiving stat, but the numbers are pretty similar. A head-to-head comparison is difficult since Howard only had 207 touches vs. 316 for Zeke. What is interesting is the 6.4 avg yards per touch both RBs posted in 2015 in the same conference. Howard had fewer receptions, but his reception average was higher than Zeke’s. Here are how they compared:

Rookies Rushing Receiving
Player Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
Jordan Howard 196 1213 6.2 9 11 106 9.6 1
Ezekiel Elliott 289 1821 6.3 23 27 206 7.6 0

Zeke and Howard each played against Michigan and Michigan State which is useful as a comparison tool. Here are their stat lines in those games:

Players Match-up Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
Ezekiel Elliott Michigan State 12 33 2.8 1 0 0 0 0
Ezekiel Elliott @Michigan 30 214 7.1 2 2 7 3.5 0
Jordan Howard @Michigan State 11 78 7.1 1 0 0 0 0
Jordan Howard Michigan 35 238 6.8 2 1 7 7 1

Both RBs had nearly identical stat lines while running all over Michigan’s decent run defense. The really interesting comparison is Michigan State. Who can forget Zeke’s frustration at his usage against Michigan State and for good reason? Howard was also used sparingly against the Spartans (on the road), but was effective when he did get the ball. This is cherry picking a bit, but these are the tough plays Howard makes:

Yards Above Replacement

Both Ohio State and Indiana gave significant touches to other RBs on the team. Here’s how it broke down between Howard and Zeke and the rest of the RBs on their teams:

Player Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
Jordan Howard 196 1213 6.2 9 11 106 9.6 1
Devine Redding 226 1012 4.5 9 12 85 7.1 0
Mike Majette 37 181 4.9 0 5 44 8.8 1
Andrew Wilson 24 73 3 1 1 14 14 0
Replacements 287 1266 4.4 10 18 143 7.9 1
Player Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
Ezekiel Elliott 289 1821 6.3 23 27 206 7.6 0
Curtis Samuel 17 132 7.8 1 22 289 13 2
Bri’Onte Dunn 15 95 6.3 1 1 0 0 0
Warren Ball 9 24 2.7 0 1 3 3 0
Jalin Marshall 2 30 15 0 36 477 13 5
Replacements 43 281 6.5 2 60 769 12.8 7

There are things that can skew these numbers. No RB on the Ohio State team needed to fill in for Zeke for any full game during the season, but Howard missed multiple games with injuries in 2015. It’s not completely fair to compare the stats from RBs that came in fresh and were used as specialists with those who played a primary role during whole games. At the same time, you can’t completely discount the fact that the Ohio State offense did continue to roll at an elite clip when RBs besides Zeke were used.

The real value of these charts is how important Howard was to the Indiana Offense. The rest of the Indiana backfield combined for almost 100 more touches than Howard, yet they had less than 100 more total yards and only scored one more touchdown on the year. Maybe the talent behind Howard is that much worse or the defenses faced in Howard’s absence were that good. Those are fair questions to ask, but when the numbers start to match up to performance on film, there’s something more there.

The Dallas Cowboys’ Predicament

Here’s what the top four running backs for the Cowboys did last year:

Dallas Cowboys Rushing Receiving
Player Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
Darren McFadden 239 1089 4.6 3 40 328 8.2 0
Joseph Randle 76 315 4.1 4 10 86 8.6 0
Robert Turbin 32 139 4.3 1 5 15 3 0
Lance Dunbar 5 67 13 0 21 215 10 0
Combined 352 1610 4.6 8 76 644 8.5 0
75% 264 1208 4.6 6 57 483 8.5 0

75% of the production from this gaggle of running backs works out to be 264/1208/6 rushing and 57/483/0 receiving. Those stat lines would generate 262 fantasy points in PPR, which would have been the second best fantasy scoring RB behind only Devonta Freeman. From a fantasy perspective that makes Zeke worth a first-round pick in redraft leagues and the clear number one rookie in dynasty leagues. On top of that, 6 total TDs is a pretty low projection so there is upside baked in. From a real-life football team perspective, anything less than those stat lines for Zeke is a complete failure, especially where the Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris tandem combined with the return of Dez Bryant and Tony Romo this year should have easily outperformed the RB platoon from last year.

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Without too much debate, Zeke is the most well-rounded running back coming into the NFL this year. There’s nothing to his game that warrants doubt for his ability to be a day-one starter. At the same time, there’s nothing to his game that sets him so far apart from his peers that the Cowboys were wise to spend a fourth overall pick on him when they already had proven commodities in the backfield. The strange part is the mixed message in their draft strategy.

If the Cowboys felt that running back was the piece they needed to win now then Zeke makes sense, but if the Cowboys are in a win now mentality then why would they use an early second-round pick on Jaylon Smith who will not see the field this year with an outside possibility that he will never fully recover? They could have used their first-round pick to inject much needed talent on the defensive side and Jaylon Smith for a Super Bowl run next year or grabbed Zeke and another year-one contributor for a run this year. I guess Jerry Jones and company are more committed to making a media splash than a Super Bowl run, but this is about fantasy sports so let’s get back to that.

Conclusion

Is Jordan Howard better than Ezekiel Elliott?

As a pure between the tackles rusher, I think he is. As a complete three-down back probably not, but when you start to probe last year’s performance, Howard and maybe a few others from the RB field are a whole lot closer to Zeke than most people assume. Zeke is far and away the more valuable fantasy option, but his value rests far more on the line he’s running behind and the guarantee of touches than individual talent.

The real question is Jordan Howard. His tape stood out against the best RBs in this draft class. As dominant as some offensive lines are in the NFL, there is a lot more parity at the pro level which makes the giant holes and open field that running backs Derrick Henry, C.J. Prosise, and Zeke enjoyed nearly non-existent at the next level. Howard ran tough and made the most out of what he was given behind a solid, but unexceptional Indiana offensive line. Howard certainly hasn’t been able to catch much of a break (no pun intended) with injuries plaguing him in high school and college not to mention the disbandment of the UAB football program, but he’s excelled everywhere he’s played.

The only reason Howard fell into Chicago’s lap in the 5th round is his struggles with injury, which shouldn’t be discounted. Howard’s violent running style makes him susceptible to injury in the same way Chris Ivory wears down as a season progresses. Howard currently faces an uphill battle with incumbent Jeremy Langford and Head Coach John Fox who tends to heavily favor playing veterans over rookies. Howard will need to stay healthy and may need the roster to clear out a bit ahead of him to get significant touches, but if he gets the opportunity in Chicago, don’t be surprised if he flashes three-down potential that causes a spike in his dynasty and redraft value.

This is the sort of non-highlight reel run that makes Howard exceptional:

Bonus

You’re still here? You must smell what I’m cooking. Check out Ohio State and Indiana play Michigan last year. You tell me who looked like the better runner.

Indiana vs Michigan

Ohio State vs Michigan

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About the author

Eric Ludwig

Eric joined the Navy just before 9/11 and shipped off to boot camp as a Nuclear Engineer in January 2002. He was accepted into an officer program and became a Surface Warfare Officer driving big ships with lots of guns after graduating from The University of Memphis with a degree in Engineering. Eric played fantasy football for years before the Navy, but limited internet access and hectic schedules during multiple deployments made following football closely nearly impossible. Upon returning stateside, Eric started consuming fantasy strategies and analysis to catch back up on the NFL. Not only did Eric catch up, he got hooked and caught the fantasy sickness. Eric separated from the Navy and returned to his hometown of Buffalo, NY to resume his sadistic love of the Bills locally.
In addition to football, Eric loves poker and writing. The lessons Eric learned while reading well over 20 poker books and playing poker avidly often drives his approach to fantasy. As a family man, Eric doesn’t get away to the poker tables nearly enough, but he finds time to pursue his love of writing and fantasy football. Eric specializes in redraft league strategies and loves the complexity of auction drafts

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