Brace yourself for a fading fantasy RB

How much longer will Ezekiel Elliott be startable in dynasty fantasy football? Some argue he’s on a permanent decline. Others maintain he can generate two or possibly even three more years of RB1/2 production. How should fantasy football managers — including dynasty managers — value Elliott in 2022 and beyond?

Ezekiel Elliott’s dynasty profile for 2022

In his first four NFL seasons, Zeke averaged between 19.5 and 21.9 PPR fantasy points per season. Entering his age-25 campaign in 2020, most experts and managers viewed him through a near-elite lens. And why not? In three of those seasons, he was a top-five fantasy RB while exceeding 310 points per year. And in that other season (2017), I posted a cool 203.2 points in only 10 games.

So yeah, nothing could stop him. Well, except age, injuries, and a very talented young teammate. All three factors played a role in Elliott’s noticeable statistical drop-off in 2020 and 2021, when he averaged under 15 fantasy points per contest while running less efficiently (4.0 and 4.2 yards per carry, respectively) than his career average.

On paper, he remains a top-20 RB. But his overall RB7 performance in 2021 was based more on durability than productivity. He was among only three top-16 RBs to play in every game. In fact, he and Jonathan Taylor and Najee Harris were the only RBs to start all 17 games. Elliott has been incredibly durable throughout his career. But as we’ll see shortly, that also might have accelerated his decline from him.

Investing in him in 2022 and beyond means investing in a per-game RB2 who could be forced into a secondary role later in the season if the Cowboys want to keep him fresher for the playoffs. He brings terrific TD upside in a relatively high-functioning offense. But if he’s your No. 1 running back, you have to hope he’ll defy the odds. And that’s not what you want in a No. 1 RB.

Fantasy projection for Elliott

About six weeks ago, my fantasy analysts and I independently assembled initial dynasty fantasy rankings for 2022, covering approximately 250 players. “Independently” means we had no idea who was ranking which player where. Interestingly, we all had the same impression of Elliott: Jason Katz and I ranked him as the RB28, while Tommy Garrett placed him at No. 26.

Our collective rankings assumed Zeke might have one or two more RB2 seasons, but not enough to encourage dynasty managers to invest heavily. Here are the major issues to consider.

How will the Cowboys utilize Elliott alongside Tony Pollard?

In terms of yards per carry, Tony Pollard has outperformed Elliott in each of the last three seasons. The 24-year-old Pollard has been rewarded with a growing offensive role, culminating in a healthy 169 touches in 2021. On the field, Pollard looked more spry with a better broken tackle rate while averaging nearly a full yard more than Elliott after contact .

With respect to Pollard, I raised some strong concerns about Elliott on the March 2 episode of NFP’s Premier Fantasy Football Podcast. The veteran has been No. 1 or No. 2 in RB snap count in each of the last four seasons. Since 2012, 76% of RBs with at least 600 offensive snaps in a season have produced fewer fantasy points the following season. Regression rates for 21 to 23-year-olds average only 5%. But for 24 to 27-year-olds, the average rate is 27%.

Zeke’s averaged 856 offensive snaps in each of the past four seasons. Simply put, this usage rate is unsustainable. When we incorporate the fact that he has more career touches than any other current RB starter, there’s cause for trepidation.

We should anticipate no less than 10 touches per game for Pollard in 2022, with a decent shot at 12. Unfortunately for Elliott, that usage would probably come at his expense. Zeke’s per-game touches have been dropping steadily for years. Now coming up on 27 years old, he probably won’t top last year’s reduced 16.7 touches per contest. 14-15 touches seems more realistic alongside Pollard.

How to assess his contract situation

The Cowboys signed Elliott to a six-year, $90 million contract extension in 2019. His cap number these next two seasons total nearly $35 million. Last August, the team restructured his contract to open up almost $7 million in cap space. As a result, the team could cut him after the 2022 season while incurring nearly $12 million in dead money.

Whether the team takes that approach is anyone’s guess. And frankly, we’ll need to see what Zeke brings to the table this season. But for now, we should assume he’s playing in 2022 to keep his starting job with the Cowboys in 2023.

In all likelihood, Elliott’s days as an elite or near-elite RB are gone. In the best-case scenario, the Cowboys manage his reps from him to keep him fresher and healthier throughout the long season. Worst-case scenario, Pollard overtakes a struggling Elliott, who has just as good a chance of being a top 20-24 RB as he does an RB1 in points per game. For dynasty purposes, that makes him a short-term RB2 with clear RB3 downside.

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