One of the things that I constantly state during the run-up to draft season is that May and June average draft position (ADP) might as well be a random number generator when it comes to what drafts will look like in August (side note: don’t draft before the third week of preseason if you can help it, ideally draft when it’s all done). That having been said, there is a disturbing trend bubbling up: Ezekiel Elliot – First Round Pick. Fifteen of the twenty-eight experts who have updated their rankings in the last seven days now have Elliott in the first twelve picks. While ADP consensus is #17 overall, the movement of experts towards ranking Elliott in the first round means that ADP will continue to go up until he no longer represents a good value. This will be especially prevalent in Yahoo! leagues, as six rankers place Elliott as a first round pick and Brad Evans went as far as saying that those who don’t draft him in the first “don’t like winning.” Now, it is understandable to love the potential there. The best line in the NFL with the best rushing prospect since Adrian Peterson. Best rushing prospect since Adrian Peterson. Where have we heard that before? While it’s entirely unlikely that Elliott goes full Richardson (who actually had a good rookie year by fantasy football standards), the Zeke in the First group is looking past a significant number of factors that will limit Elliott’s production. Now don’t get me wrong, I think Zeke is great. I think, however, there are several factors, including investment, his teammates and history, that are actively working against Ezekiel Elliott returning a potential first round price tag.[Jeff]
While it makes sense to say that the Cowboys invested a first-round pick in Elliott to immediately throw him out there as a bell cow back, it also makes sense to say the opposite. The Cowboys invested #4 overall in Elliott, a player who can help Tony Romo and Dez Bryant now, but also a player that can grow with their offensive line and become the face of the franchise once Romo is pulverized into a cloud of collarbone particles retires. He can’t very well do this if he himself gets injured from taking a beating at the NFL level. Many praise Elliott’s ability to carry a massive workload, but he has already had quite a large load in his last two years. Since 2010, he is one of ten running backs that have had 270 or more carries in consecutive years. None of the rest are of note (except fantasy bust Bishop Sankey and future fantasy bust Jeremy Langford), and while Elliott is better than everyone else on the list, his selection was a draft for now and draft for later move by Jerry Jones & company. Their second round pick, Jaylon Smith, was an eye to the future, since smart money is on him missing 2016. The Cowboys may be impulsive, but they aren’t stupid. They let DeMarco Murray go because they knew about workloads crushing running backs. Why would they overload the #4 overall pick if they have an eye to the future?
The Cowboys were successful in 2014 pounding the ball and getting lots of touchdowns to Dez Bryant. Lots of touchdowns. Last year Bryant took a step back in the TD department as injuries to Dez and Romo limited the passing attack. While I have no doubt that the Cowboys will return to a passing attack, let’s not forget that they still have Darren McFadden and added a piece in the offseason, a piece that will frustrate the snot out of fantasy owners in 2016: Alfred Morris. Alf was pulled off the scrap heap after he was rotated in and out in Washington in 2015. Then they went and got Elliott. Building on the theory that the Cowboys are going to bring Elliott along in a way that limits the beatings he takes, it stands to reason that Alfred Morris will be the ever-annoying short yardage and/or goal-line back. He has done the bulk of his damage from the red zone in his career, with 21 of his 29 touchdowns coming from within the ten-yard line. He’s also garnered 41 first downs in 156 red zone carries. Overall, he’s been an effective red zone back, scoring a touchdown or getting a first down on 41% of his red zone carries. He will be a thorn in fantasy owners’ sides all year long, “stealing” touches, and touchdowns from Elliott. He’s on a one-year contract, and we only have to look as far as DeMarco Murray to see how the Cowboys treat walk-year running backs.
History and his college workload also work against Elliott. Since 2005, 19 rookie running backs have started 12 or more games. Of those 19, 13 averaged double digit fantasy points per game. Of the top fantasy point per game producers among rookies, five of the top eight did it with double-digit touchdowns. Going further, of the running backs that pulled off double-digit fantasy points in the last six seasons, only Le’Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy had a top-flight receiver to snatch touchdowns from them. Zeke Elliott will have plenty of run up until the red zone, and once they get into the red zone, Dez Bryant is there to steal red zone scores, and Alfred Morris is there to steal red zone snaps. Again, none of this is a condemnation of Elliott’s talent, but rather, his opportunity. The Cowboys have plenty of other options in the red zone, options that many of the top fantasy rookie running backs’ offenses did not have. This will work against Elliott.
There’s a lot going against Zeke Elliott as a first round pick. I really like him, I think he has a lot of talent, but his usage could be an issue as the franchise will dictate a long-term preservation of his health in lieu of running him into the ground. Morris provides a great complement back to execute exactly this strategy. McFadden will be relegated to a change-of-pace role, and is unlikely to have fantasy relevance. I still believe that Elliott will return a great value if you get him in the mid-second round, but taking him in the first round is turning a blind eye to his potential deficiencies. He will be a great back in the NFL, and will likely be a top pick in 2017, but spending a first round pick on a running back that has never played a snap? Leave that risk to someone else, you don’t need that headache in the first round.