The NFL Draft is officially over, which means it’s time to start focusing on the fantasy football draft. It’s never too early to start preparing for fantasy football, especially if you own the top pick. Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott finished the 2018 season as the RB5 behind Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, and Alvin Kamara. Elliott might be the best overall running back in football and should build on his lofty 2018 performance. Elliott will be one of the first players off the board, but should he be the first overall pick?
(Update: Elliott is holding out and reportedly will not return without a new contract. He’ll need to play at some point in 2019 in order to accrue a season of work, so take him with the fourth or fifth pick in your draft)
Fantasy Football 2019 Season Preview: Ezekiel Elliott
The fourth-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft once again had a season for the ages. Appearing in 15 games, Elliott led the league in carries (304), rushing yards (1,434) and rushing yards per game (95.6). Additionally, the Cowboys started to get Elliott more involved in the passing game, as the third-year running back recorded career-highs in receptions (77), receiving yards (567), and touchdown receptions (three).
Despite his high rushing volume, Elliott actually had the lowest amount of rushing touchdowns in his short career. Elliott averaged 0.4 rushing touchdowns per game in 2018, well below the 0.88 rushing touchdowns per game he averaged during his first two years in the league.
The 2018 Cowboys’ offense dramatically changed with the addition of Amari Cooper, so let’s break down how Elliott looked with and without Cooper in the lineup. In seven games without Cooper, Elliot averaged 88.4 rushing yards-per-game, 3.6 receptions-per game, 25 receiving yards-per-game, and a combined 0.5 touchdowns-per-game. In eight games with Cooper, Elliott averaged 101.9 rushing yards-per-game, 6.5 receptions-per-game, 49 receiving yards-per-game, and a combined 0.7 yards-per-game.
Basically, having Cooper on the field forced opposing defenses to respect the Cowboys aerial attack, which in turn opened up rushing room for Elliott. When projected to a full 16-game season, Elliot was on pace to finish the year with 1,630 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns to go along with 104 receptions for 784 yards and four receiving touchdowns.
The Dallas Cowboys will still have Amari Cooper, which should only raise Elliot’s ceiling. The Ohio State product was the RB2 with Cooper on the field, and that success should carry over into 2019. Additionally, Elliott’s low touchdown rate should return to its’ normal level in 2019, which of course means more fantasy production. Elliott’s low rushing touchdown total wasn’t caused by the arrival of Amari Cooper, as Elliott the same amount of rushing touchdowns per game before and after the Cooper trade.
Additionally, the situation surrounding Ezekiel Elliott should be improved in 2019. The Cowboys finally fired offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and replaced him with former backup quarterback Kellen Moore. Nobody knows what Moore’s offense will look like, but it’s hard for it to be more bland and predictable than Linehan’s offense.
Dallas ran one of the least creative schemes in the league with Linehan, and a more creative coach should be able to get more out of Elliott. Linehan didn’t use Elliott as a pass-catcher until midway through the season, so Elliott’s reception total should improve with Moore calling the shots.
On top of that, Elliott’s offensive line should be significantly better in 2019. Four-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick missed the entire 2018 season with a nerve issue but should be full-go for the start of 2019. Frederick is one of the best centers in the league and his absence dramatically affected the Cowboys offensive line. After finishing 2017 as the fourth-best run-blocking line in the league, Dallas fell down to the eight-best run-blocking line, per Football Outsiders. Frederick’s return should boost Dallas’ offensive line back into the elite ranks of the league.
The biggest caveat against Elliott comes from the Cowboys’ 2019 draft class. Fourth-round running back Tony Pollard is a pass-catching specialist who could take some receptions away from Elliott. Additionally, seventh-round running back Mike Weber is a between-the-tackles guy who could take help relieve Elliott’s burden. The Cowboys have talked about taking some strain off Elliott, and now they’ve got the pieces to do it.
Average Draft Position
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Ezekiel Elliott is currently projected to be the second player off the board. It’s hard to argue with this assessment, as Elliott should be among the very best in the league in 2019.
Despite the new additions to the passing game, the Dallas Cowboys still want to run their offense through Elliott. Amari Cooper and an improved Michael Gallup will force opposing defenses to respect the passing game, which will free up room for Elliott in the ground game. On top of that, the Cowboys offensive line should improve with the return of Travis Frederick.
While taking Elliott with the first overall pick is a justifiable decision, there are a few reasons you shouldn’t take him over Saquon Barkley. For one, Elliott has a new offensive coordinator. In a perfect world, Kellen Moore will continue to incorporate Elliott into the passing game while adding a more creative element to the offense. However, we don’t know what his offense will look like, so there’s a chance Elliott won’t bring that much to the passing game. Additionally, the Cowboys added two running backs in the NFL Draft and have openly discussed trying to lower Elliott’s workload.
This is, of course, nitpicking, as Elliott will be one of the top running back in fantasy football. However, the goal with fantasy is to minimize risk, and Barkley is an ever-so-safer pick. If you have the second-overall pick, make Elliott your guy.
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