Trading Post: Ezekiel Elliott

April 1, 2021

It’s not every day you come across a running back as successful as Ezekiel Elliott in fantasy football.

Five straight years of 200 or more fantasy points to start his career, with three of those years having over 300 fantasy points. A ten-game season in which he still finished as RB13. An RB1 finish in a season that the Cowboys came crashing down after the loss of Dak Prescott to a season-ending injury. 

Zeke has seen a serious trend down in rushing yards per game. Since 2016, his rushing yards per game has dropped from 108.7 (2016) to 65.3 (2020). Now, the drop in production could be in part to losing Dak in 2020. But the statistics seem to say that Elliott is seeing a drop in production otherwise. From 2018 to 2019, Zeke also saw a decrease in over ten rushing yards per game, from 95.6 to 84.8. With Tony Pollard also seeing a career high in receptions, along with more yards per receptions than Zeke, it is possible to see Zeke’s production drop off more. 

What is interesting to look at is Elliot’s production compared to Pollard’sin their time as running backs in 2020. Let’s take a look at their stats via PlayerProfiler:

StatisticElliottPollard
True Yards Per Carry3.9 YPC4.0 YPC
Yards Per Touch4.4 YPT4.9 YPT
Production Premium-15.7+3.6
Runs of 20+ Yards34
Runs of 40+ Yards02
Stacked Front Carry Rate12.7%25.7%
Goal Line Carries163

True yards per carry puts into perspective how good Pollard has been, as it takes any runs over 10 yards out of the equation. Taking away his two runs of 40+ yards in a smaller sample size could have really hurt his stat line here, but it actually helps to show his consistency. 

What is Production Premium?

This compares a player’s value to the average full-time player across league-average situations. For reference, two players very close in production premium to Elliott, are Kenyan Drake (-16.3) and Todd Gurley (-16.8). Among the top 35 fantasy football running backs in 2020, here is the list of players with a negative production premium:

David Montgomery (RB4), -2.7: The Bears have added Damien Williams, and will be bringing Tarik Cohen back into the mix this fall. 

Montgomery

Josh Jacobs (RB8), -13.6: The Raiders have brought in Kenyan Drake to crowd the backfield.

Melvin Gordon (RB14), -6.6: He’s 27 years old and while he had a strong year, looks to be on the start of the decline in his career.

Kenyan Drake (RB16), -16.3: Joins Josh Jacobs in Oakland, and is no longer a starting running back. 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB22), -3.4: Uncertainty surrounding whether the Chiefs need to bring in another running back, as he wasn’t able to stay healthy or produce as much in the second half of 2020. 

Miles Sanders (RB24), -3.5: Sanders looks to be the outlier here, as I really believe in the talent, and think he will bounce back in a big way in 2021. But he was definitely in a terrible situation last year.

James Conner (RB27), -3.5: Has yet to find a new home, and most likely will not be the primary option wherever he signs. 

Todd Gurley (RB29), -8.9: We have seen the rapid decline in Gurley’s career, and don’t expect him to lead a backfield in 2021.

Devin Singletary (RB31), -1.1: Will he even be a backup in 2021?

Wayne Gallman (RB33), -1.5: A career backup who many were surprised by this year, as he took over for Saquon in the Giant’s backfield. 

The sample size is a pretty large one here for production premium, and what do we see? I think we are starting to see the decline of Zeke’s career.

He’s somewhere in between the RB1s (Montgomery and Jacobs) who seem to be heading to a crowded backfield; and the RB2s (Gordon and Drake) who are in the later stages of their careers, and are the end of the road as starters.

But, almost all of these running backs with negative production premiums are either looking for a new home, turning into a committee, or reverting to a backup role.

I would also say the general consensus on any of these running backs among the fantasy football community is rather negative.

Big Play Ability

The most glaring statistic when comparing Zeke and Pollard, for me, was the lack of big plays by Zeke. He was tied for the least amount of runs for 20+ yards (3) and 40+ yards (0) in 2020. Those are some underwhelming numbers, especially considering his 2016 rookie year in which he burst onto the scene. In 2016, he had the most runs of 20+ yards (14), and a respectable amount of runs of 40+ yards (3). Don’t expect many more big plays coming from the veteran, as he just doesn’t seem to have that burst anymore. 

Now I do think that he will be a starter for at least a couple more years, but Pollard has shown enough to get his looks. Elliott has had a clear advantage in opportunities to succeed in this offense. While Pollard has been a second option, he has shown his ability to take over this offense. Pollard lead Elliott in yards per carry, yards per touch, big plays, and production premium in 2020. All while facing almost double the stacked boxes that Elliott faced this year. Meanwhile, Zeke saw over five times as many goal line carries, yet only recorded two more rushing touchdowns than Pollard this year. Pollard is a dynamic playmaker that can take away from Elliott’s stats this year, as well as in the future.

If I am drafting Zeke, I’m waiting for the right time. There are many great running backs in the top 20 this year. There is a great chance that Zeke can fall back into the lower tier of those running backs. Don’t expect Zeke to be anything more than a mid-to-high level RB2 this year. And if you own him in dynasty, it’s not too late to sell high.