Fantasy Football Draft: The Case for Ezekiel Elliott at Number One Overall

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Ezekiel Elliott

Fantasy football championships can be lost because of the failure of a first-round draft pick. It is important to avoid busting with an early round selection, especially at the very top of round one. The first overall pick of a snake draft brings the added pressure of waiting a significant period of time before making the next pick. The player selected first overall should have the highest possible floor and represent the player most likely to retain their first-round value. In 2018, the player that should be selected first overall, regardless of format, is Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.

Making the Case for Drafting Ezekiel Elliott First Overall in Fantasy

Over his first two NFL seasons, Ezekiel Elliott’s per game averages have been historically great. When comparing the averages of the other running back options for the first overall pick, Elliott’s all-around efficiency clearly stands out.  

Player Total Games Total Yards  Receptions  TDs 
E. Elliott 25 129.9 2.32 1.0
L. Bell 29 119.8 4.41 0.66
D. Johnson 32 98.6 3.62 1.0
T. Gurley 29 86.4 2.2 0.55

 

Elliott has the highest yards per game average and is tied with Arizona’s David Johnson with one total touchdown per game. Many fantasy owners will point to Elliott’s perceived lack of involvement in the passing game, but his usage during his first two seasons compares favorably to the Rams’ Todd Gurley.  

Elliott (2016-2017): 58 receptions, 632 yards, three receiving touchdowns
Gurley (2015-2016): 64 receptions, 515 yards, no receiving touchdowns

Dallas is committed to increasing Elliott’s receiving usage and that will mean a huge leap in pass-catching production during his third season.

Offensive Line

There is a symbiotic relationship between a lead running back and his offensive line. The best offensive line of the fantasy running back options is certainly Elliott’s. As per PlayerProfiler.com, here are the run-blocking efficiency rankings for the top four projected fantasy running backs. 

Team 2016 OL Rank 2017 OL Rank
Dallas 2nd 5th
L.A. Rams 24th 1st
Pittsburgh 3rd 9th
Arizona 7th 10th

 

The Cowboys offensive line was expected to take a step backward last year after losing both Ronald Leary and Doug Free but still managed to finish as a top-five run-blocking unit. Dallas fired offensive line coach Frank Pollack and replaced him with long-time Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander in an effort to reestablish their spot as the top overall NFL offensive line.  

The Cowboys have three perennial Pro Bowl lineman in left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin. According to Pro Football Focus, last season Martin graded out as the top run-blocking guard, Frederick the second-best run-blocking center, and Tyron Smith as the seventh best run-blocking tackle. In addition, the Cowboys signed tackle Cameron Fleming from New England and drafted Texas guard Connor Williams in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft. The Cowboys’ perennial premier offensive line is a huge reason Elliott has the safest floor of any fantasy running back.

Game Script Agnostic

Here at the NFL team rushing totals over the last two seasons:

Team Rushing Yards:  2016-2017
Dallas 979
Buffalo 979
Carolina 943
New England 930
Jacksonville 919
Philadelphia 911
Minnesota 881
Denver 867
Indianapolis 860
Los Angeles Rams 829
Baltimore 827

 

Over the last two seasons, the Cowboys have 979 team rushing attempts, tied for most in the league with the Buffalo Bills. It’s important to note that Dallas had a 13-3 and 9-7 record in those respective seasons. Translation? Regardless of overall team success, the Cowboys entire offense is committed to running the football.  

This off-season, Dallas chose to cut All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant.  Their current veteran receiving personnel has achieved limited NFL success.  

Player Total Games Rec PG Rec. Yds PG Total TDs
A. Hurns 52 3.63 51.3 21
T. Williams 87 2.91 29.8 20
T. Austin 75 2.59 22.5 21
C. Beasley 87 2.91 29.8 20
D. Thompson 53 1.45 19.4 4

 

This group is the least accomplished wide receiver corps in the NFL. Dallas drafted rookie wide receiver Michael Gallup from Colorado State in round three of the NFL Draft but still failed to acquire a top free agent wide receiver. When you add in a tight end group with a grand total of nine career NFL receptions, the personnel clearly supports the narrative that Elliott will be the featured offensive option. 

The Difficulty of Repeating as a Top-Five Fantasy Running Back

The fantasy running back position experiences extreme year-to-year volatility. Over the last ten years, very few players have produced consecutive top-five PPR finishes.

Regardless of the impact of randomness on these results, it is worth noting that only 16 percent (eight out of 50) running backs were able to repeat a top-five PPR performance.  Only two running backs (Arian Foster and Marshawn Lynch) were able to produce three years in a row, and none accomplished it four consecutive years. Last year’s top five PPR fantasy running backs were as follows.

Player Total PPR Points
T. Gurley 383.3
L. Bell 341.6
A. Kamara 315.4
K. Hunt 295.2
M. Gordon 288.1

 

The trend suggests that at least three of those running backs will not make the list this season. Selecting Todd Gurley or Le’Veon Bell as the top overall pick should make fantasy drafters cautious. With only 10 games played last season, Elliott is completely fresh for the 2018 season while still only 22-years-old.

End of Season Fantasy Schedule

It is always an advantage to have your best players at home during the stretch drive of the fantasy season. This season, Dallas has one of the most favorable late-season schedules of any NFL team.

Dallas is the only team with four home games between Weeks 12-16. They host the Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers during that time. While Philadelphia had a strong rushing defense last season, New Orleans and Tampa Bay were very mediocre, and Washington allowed the most rushing yards per game of any NFL team. Another observation from the above list? The Arizona Cardinals, Los Angeles Rams, and Pittsburgh Steelers are all not listed.

Summary

The first overall fantasy pick is both a blessing and a curse. Having the option of picking any fantasy player is great, but it cannot be a bust. With over 20 picks until the second round selection, a high fantasy floor is the most important criteria. When factoring in efficiency, offensive line, pass-catching usage, year-to-year results, and team end of year schedule, the first overall fantasy pick regardless of format should be Ezekiel Elliott.

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