When we think about top rookies for 2016 for not only fantasy football but football in general, that conversation starts and ends with Ezekiel Elliott.
Drafted by the Dallas Cowboys with the 4th overall pick, Elliott lands in arguably the best spot from a production standpoint. He will have one of the best (if not the best) offensive lines in football, a proven quarterback in Tony Romo and a superstar wide receiver in Dez Bryant on his side as well. With Darren McFadden having a comeback year in 2015 with the Cowboys after only starting 11 games and still having the 5th most rushing yards in the NFL, the expectations are sky-high for Elliott as he comes in to Dallas.
It’s hard to find a weakness in Elliott’s game other than needing to be a more consistent as a receiver. His college resume is excellent, if you can overlook the alarming heavy workload of over 600 touches in the past two seasons.
Ezekiel Elliott Statistics
At six feet and 225 pounds, Elliott has the ideal size along with good straight line speed after being clocked with an impressive 4.47 forty yard dash time. With 43 touchdowns and an over six yards per carry average over the past two seasons, Elliott has been very productive despite being the focal point for many opposing team’s defenses. Ball security has also never been an issue with zero fumbles in his last two seasons despite 562 rushing attempts. Overall, there is just so much to love about Elliott.
Zek Goes Pro[the_ad id=”58837″]The Cowboys currently have Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris at running back as well, but it’s widely predicted that Elliott will be the clear-cut feature back for the Cowboys in 2016.
Alfred Morris was just signed this past off-season and is most likely safe on the roster as cutting him would save the team no cap room. McFadden on the other hand, could be at risk for losing his roster spot. If the team does cut him before the start of the season, they could save two million dollars in cap space (2.150 million dollar cap hit, $100,000 dead cap hit). While doing a terrific job last season, McFadden could be on his way out of Dallas as they have plenty of money invested in Elliott already. Regardless, both Morris and McFadden (if kept on the roster) would be nothing more than change-of-pace running backs behind Elliott.
The Numbers Don’t Lie
The Cowboys as a team last season averaged 4.6 yards per carry and almost 1,900 rushing yards altogether. Behind a near perfect offensive line including Tyron Smith, Zach Martin, Doug Free, La’El Collins, and Travis Frederick, Elliott will have a field day working behind this unit. Because Elliott’s great pass protection skills, it’s possible that we see Elliott as the team’s three down back immediately and get receiving work as well as he had 55 receptions over his last two seasons at Ohio State.
Darren McFadden as the lead back last season had 40 receptions for over 300 yards last season, so the Cowboys will not be afraid to use their running back in the passing game. Let’s now look at some potential “rough” projections for Elliott in 2016.
When Darren McFadden became the starter in week seven for the Cowboys and finished out the remainder of the season as the starter, he had 202 carries in those 11 games. That averages out to 18.36 carries per game. But because the Cowboys relied heavily on the run game due to injuries with Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, that number might be a bit inflated. So let’s say that Elliott gets 16 carries per week, that would equal out to 256 carries over the course of a 16 game season. 250 carries is nothing to cough at and would be a solid number for a rookie running back. Using that same 11 game stretch that McFadden had as the starter last season, he had 960 yards rushing on 202 carries. That would equal 4.75 yards per carry, which is a very good number considering how much the run game was the focal point for the Cowboys when Romo and Bryant were injured.
I think Elliott has the chance to eclipse that and run for 4.80-4.85 yards per carry. So let’s use 4.825 and multiply that by 256 carries, which equals 1,235 yards rushing. These are my own personal numbers but are very close to Gridiron Experts running back projections.
With his potential number of rushing touchdowns, it’s harder to predict. Elliott had 43 rushing touchdowns in his last two seasons at Ohio State and Dallas as a team had eight rushing touchdowns while McFadden had only three and Joseph Randle (the team’s starting running back weeks one through six) had four. So for the team’s starters, they had seven rushing touchdowns. But as the team had no identity in the passing game with both Romo and Bryant missing a combined 19 games in 2015, the team struggled offensively for the most part. Elliott has the chance for 10 rushing touchdowns simply because their passing game will be back and help take attention off the run game.
Potential Receiving Threat
McFadden had 28 receptions from weeks seven through sixteen, and Randle had 10 receptions in weeks one through six. That would equal 38 receptions in total but a lot will depend on the status of Lance Dunbar. Dunbar is coming off a major knee injury but did have 21 receptions in only four weeks last season before having sustaining the knee injury. He could play a role in how much third down looks Elliott would get. In all, I think we are looking at roughly 30 receptions for Elliott with a 7.7 or so yards per reception rate. That would equate to 231 yards receiving. Elliott didn’t score any receiving touchdowns in his last two seasons and neither Randle nor McFadden had any receiving touchdowns in 2015, so I’ll leave out Elliott having any receiving touchdowns in 2016 as well for argument’s sake.
In standard fantasy leagues, that would 206.6 points. And in PPR (points per reception) leagues, that would equal 236.6 fantasy point.
For standard leagues, that would’ve been the 3rd best point total for a running back. In PPR leagues, that would’ve been the 4th best point total for a running back. So overall, Elliott has the opportunity and supporting cast to be a top fantasy running back in 2016 and may cost you a late first round/early second round draft pick in 2016 redraft leagues, but he looks to be well worth it.
For dynasty leagues, Elliott is a near consensus first round pick and is immediately thrust into the top five running back discussion. Because of his situation with a rather young and very talented offensive line and also consider Elliott doesn’t have much injury concern and is capable of handling a full workload, he is definitely a cornerstone for any fantasy team to build around for years to come. Elliott will take the NFL by storm and do so for many years.
Doug Moore is a fantasy football writer for Gridiron Experts. He has previously written for sites such as ESPN, SBNation, FFToday & Inside The Pylon. He also was the co-host for the highly-rated fantasy football podcast Overtime Ireland for several years. You can find him on Twitter at @DMooreNFL