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Is Rookie Running Back Ezekiel Elliott Overvalued?

Ezekiel Elliott, the crop-top connoisseur and 4th overall pick of the Dallas Cowboys in April’s draft, has the weight of the fantasy world on his shoulders. In addition to having the honor of being the highest drafted running back since Trent Richardson in 2012 (3rd overall to the Browns, and we know how that turned out), some fantasy owners are expecting Elliot to perform more like Adrian Peterson (7th overall to the Vikings) and lead their teams to fantasy football glory in 2016.

His average draft position, according to NFL.com, is 8.66, ranking him higher than the likes of A.J. Green, Devonta Freeman, Rob Gronkowski, Deandre Hopkins, and teammate Dez Bryant. Despite not having appeared in an NFL game, he is the 4th highest ranked RB behind potential fantasy RB studs Adrian Peterson, David Johnson, and sophomore standout Todd Gurley. Elliott has never played a game at the pro level, and yet his ADP indicates fantasy superstardom. Why is fantasy football seemingly enamored with this relatively unproven rookie?

Editor's Note: Purchase a full season NFL Premium Pass (including Draft Kit + DFS Premium), and also get MLB Premium + DFS for free through October. Premium DFS lineup picks, expert lineups, tools and more - seven days a week. You can see screenshots of our NFL Premium and MLB Premium and DFS tools. What are you waiting for?

 

Ezekiel Elliot - College Superstar

College success has never been a surefire indicator of production in the NFL. In the most notorious recent cases, quaterbacks Johnny Manziel and Tim Tebow failed to live up to their college hype. At the running back position, Trent Richardson, Ronnie Brown, and Reggie Bush serve as cautionary tales of running backs chosen extremely high who failed to meet expectations. Yet something feels different about Elliott.

He has exceptional athleticism and toughness, attributes that allowed him to tear up the Big Ten in consecutive years. His astounding production of 1,878 yards in 2014, and 1,821 yards in 2015, provided consistency to an Ohio State attack that dealt with a quarterback carousel featuring Braxton Miller, J.T. Barrett, and Cardale Jones. He was one of only two backs in college football (along with Alabama’s Derrick Henry) to record 1,000 yards after contact last season, and he caught 92.9% of his targets last season. His pedigree is impeccable. 

Fantasy owners in PPR leagues will salivate over his receiving potential as another option for aging quarterback Tony Romo. As the thought-process goes, he is an excellent run and pass blocker, which will allow him to be on the field in both obvious running and passing situations from day one - as evidenced by his usage as a three-down back in the last preseason game. Therefore, his opportunities for carries and receptions should be abundant.

Pro Football Focus’ predraft scouting report of Ezekiel Elliott encapsulates the reason why Zeke is so beloved by fantasy owners: he “can step in and carry an offense from day one.” I’m not here to question Ezekiel Elliott’s talent. There is no question that he is qualified to play in the NFL, barring injury and any other unforeseeable circumstance like a failed drug test. Sadly, however, I’m going to have to rain on the parade of Elliott’s fervent fantasy supporters. The problem isn't with Elliot and his talent, it's with his high ADP and draft day cost.

 

The Cowboys Running Back Depth Chart

The running back position has been downgraded in importance and glamour in the NFL’s position pantheon, if you will, with many teams now featuring a committee approach to the running game. The Cowboys, while they will have to whittle down the number of running backs on their depth chart, have some pretty prominent names slated to get touches.

Former Redskin RB Alfred Morris can definitely contribute, Lance Dunbar remains a potential change-of-pace speedster, and Darren McFadden, albeit injury-prone, had a productive fantasy campaign last season. Jason Garrett has no good reason to run Elliott into the ground with an extremely heavy workload (25+ touches), especially since they have him signed to a guaranteed contract for the next four years. By using a committee system, at least to some extent, Garrett can effectively maximize the talents of each back while minimizing the individual injury risk. For a team, that’s an ideal situation to have. For a fantasy owner, not so much.

Is it possible that injuries or a lack of production from the other backs will expand Elliott's role (and fantasy upside) even further? Absolutely. McFadden has been injury-plagued throughout his NFL career, and Morris failed to reach the 1,000 yard rushing plateau for the first time in his four-year career last season. But would I bet my first round draft pick that Elliott becomes a 25+ touch workhorse right away? Probably not.

McFadden has played in all 16 games for two consecutive seasons, and last year had a productive 1,089 yard campaign. The Cowboys are probably not ready to completely give up on him just yet. Additionally, Alfred Morris was signed to a two-year contract, and Lance Dunbar was just activated from the PUP list. I expect some sort of running back platoon situation in Dallas, and that can potentially hamper Elliott’s fantasy production.

 

Conclusion For 2016

Ezekiel Elliott is slightly overvalued because of the fluid situation he faces coming into his rookie season. Do not take this as an indictment of Elliott’s talent, only his potential 2016 fantasy upside. In two-to-three years, Elliott will most likely be the fully-blown workhorse running back for the Cowboys’ offense. By then, the team may have a new quarterback, a revamped defense, and a record better than 4-12. For now, Zeke remains trapped in a logjam of sorts on a crowded running back depth chart. Although he is at the top of said depth chart, expect a platoon as Coach Garrett eases Elliott into the NFL.

Additionally, the Dallas defense is one of the worst in the league, meaning that Tony Romo will often have to pass the ball to keep his team in games. While that may not be terrible for Elliott’s potential PPR production, in terms of carries (which are considered the meat and potatoes for fantasy backs), such a situation may not bode well for his overall potential production. Yes, the Dallas offensive line is often considered one of the best in the league - but if they are not running the ball and controlling the clock, Zeke may not see as much fantasy production in this upcoming season.

Be wary of selecting Elliott in the 1st or early 2nd round. But if most feature backs are off the board, and all of the superstar receivers have been chosen as well, do not be afraid to take Zeke as a late-second or early-third round pick. Tread carefully, and try not to get caught up in the ADP hype. However, be on the lookout for value. For example, if you find yourself in a zero RB type draft where Zeke falls to the late second or early third round, take a long look at drafting the stellar talent from Ohio State.

 


Check out RotoBaller's famous fantasy football draft sleepers and waiver wire pickups list, updated regularly!




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