Will Ezekiel Elliott Bounce Back in 2021? (Fantasy Football)

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The year is 2019. While holding out on his contract, Ezekiel Elliott is relaxing and training in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Over the course of 40 days, he enjoys the sunshine, the workouts, and the food and returns stateside to the massive contract he was hoping for. In September of that year, Elliott became the highest-paid running back in NFL history, signing a six-year contract extension worth $90 million, with $50 million guaranteed. Elliott went on to have a fantastic 2019 season, finishing as running back four, with almost 1400 yards rushing and 12 rushing TDs, not to mention over 400 yards receiving and two receiving TDs.

Fast forward to summer 2020. Living in a very different world, instead of training in Mexico, Elliott was recovering from COVID. Thankful to have mild symptoms, Elliott still had to approach his preseason training very differently. After being unable to train for a month and quarantining, Elliott was able to join teammates in QB Dak Prescott’s backyard for an unconventional pre-season. Hopes were high for the Cowboys, stacked with offensive weapons to make a playoff run. Then in week five, Dak got injured, and it just seemed that the Dallas Cowboys hype train, which Ezekiel Elliott was at least the co-conductor of, just screeched to an abrupt halt. Any sparkle that Elliott showed in the first quarter of the season seemed gone. The Cowboys limped through the rest of the season, ending with a 5-10 record. Zeke managed to finish as RB 11, which most owners would be happy to have on their fantasy team, but it was the lowest Elliott had ever finished. As he enters his sixth season in the league, are we looking at a bounce-back season? What does Elliott have left in the tank?

According to the UDK consensus rankings, Ezekiel Elliott is currently ranked as the 7th RB coming off the board. Elliott is being drafted near the end of the first round. This is at a point in your draft where you might have to decide between a starting RB or taking a strong left with your draft plan and going Travis Kelce or Davante Adams. There are a few things to look at when determining whether or not Elliott still has an abundance of air in his tires.

Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number

We have heard the age-old adage from Mike many times, “Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs.” According to pro-football-reference, RBs peak at the youngest age of the four main positional players, usually peaking between age 23 and 25. Decline traditionally starts from 26 to 28, with a more severe decline taking place after age 28. With Elliott at 26 years old at the start of the 2021 season, this is definitely a concern. How many more years does he have left?

But for every age truther, I offer you the example of our favorite Yeti, Derrick Henry. Granted, the question of Henry producing another top-two fantasy season in 2021 is left to be answered, but he is a year older than Elliott. Henry begins the 2021 season at 27 years old, and although analysts every season say that his numbers will go down, they have continued to improve.  Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson are other examples of RBs who continued to peak past 26. Between ages 27 to 30, Peterson had three years rushing over 1,200 yards with double-digit touchdowns. In addition, Sanders ran over 1,400 yards each season from age 26 to age 30. When considering age when it comes to RBs, this is where you have to decide who the outliers are when you draft.

There are clearly outliers when it comes to this statistic, and what is there to say that Zeke will not be an outlier, and therefore have more peak years in him? One thing that could undoubtedly help Zeke this year would be a better offensive line to run behind. Short of the Philadelphia Eagles offensive line, there was no other worse place to be in 2020 than Dallas if you were an O-lineman. In addition to their center retiring, the Cowboys lost six offensive linemen to injury in 2020. They finished the season ranked by PFF as the 27th offensive line. This year PFF is ranking them 6th. This jump bodes well for Elliott.

Running Through the Air

A statistic that might point more to Zeke being past his peak deals more with his receptions. Looking back, 2018 – when Zeke was 24 years old – was not just an excellent year for him rushing; he had his best season yet with catching the football. Elliott was targeted with a pass 95 times that season, which was the 5th highest among RBs. He had 567 receiving yards, averaging 5.1 receptions per game – at that point, career highs for Elliott. The thing that is concerning is that since 2018, pretty much all of his receiving metrics have gone down. His average receptions per game, his receiving targets, and his receiving totals all decreased in 2019 and further decreased in 2020. Granted, Elliott did not have Dak Prescott for the majority of 2020. Herein lies an integral piece of the Ezekiel Elliott conundrum. Does Elliott’s success, the possibility of him squeaking out at least one more peak RB performance year, depend on the success of Prescott? I say yes. And understand that even if, for some reason, Zeke had to play without Dak again this year, I believe he would be a solid RB. But, he would not be a league winner. The chart below shows the total fantasy points scored each week by the Dallas QB in 2020, as well as Elliott’s corresponding fantasy points. In the five weeks that Dak Prescott was at the helm, Zeke averaged 19.94 fantasy points. In the weeks that another QB was throwing passes for the Cowboys, Zeke’s average fantasy points plummeted to a 9.8 average.

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1 Dak Prescott 17.64 26.2
2 Dak Prescott 39.8 19.2
3 Dak Prescott 27.48 14.8
4 Dak Prescott 37.28 16.5
5 Dak Prescott 12.44 23
6 Andy Dalton 13 8
7 Ben DiNucci 1.6 5.6
8 Ben DiNucci 5.4 7.8
9 Garrett Gilbert 16.5 7.9
11 Andy Dalton 24.3 18.4
12 Andy Dalton 14.3 2.4
13 Andy Dalton 21.6 11.5
14 Andy Dalton 19.3 6.9
15 Andy Dalton 21.2 INJURED
16 Andy Dalton 32.6 15.9
17 Andy Dalton 12.5 13.6

Do not hear what I am not saying; Ezekiel Elliott is a great RB and will be a great RB for fantasy this season – as he has been for every season prior. The issue here is, If you are drafting Elliott close to his current ADP, you are banking on a top-five production from him to feel like he was worth his draft capital. Drafting a player that early, you are expecting a sure thing, barring injury. In my opinion, I am taking the shot. I believe Zeke has one amazing top-five RB season left in him. I believe that he is coming into the season excited to play with Dak again and very, very hungry. If you are drafting him at his current ADP, you better hope, like I do, that he gets fed.

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