Dynasty Draft Profile: Ezekiel Elliott
March 16, 2016 | Rich Hribar
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Ezekiel Elliott closed his career at Ohio State by reeling off back to back 1,800-yard rushing seasons. Not too shabby for a player that can’t even legally purchase alcohol until late July. Elliott is still a baby in terms of NFL age, which is critical for running back fantasy performance more so than accumulated mileage. In terms of production of this level of output, only Ray Rice (4,926) and Darren McFadden entered the NFL turning 21-years old with more career rushing yardage than Elliott’s 3,961 yards since 2000.
We don’t really need to skirt around the profile here as Elliott is widely valued as the top back in the class from a real and fantasy perspective and his combine solidified that stance in the eyes of many, propelling his buzz to the point where he may now be regarded as an option to be selected within the top-10 draft picks.
Elliott has carried the mantle over in being the next “exceptional talent” that is so good that he trumps the pitfalls of investing elite capital into the position. We’ve heard remarks such as “the best running back prospect since LaDainian Tomlinson or Adrian Peterson” more than once over the past 15 years with mixed results, but those statements largely ring hollow since we keep going back to them subjectively time and again, whether it be Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden or Peterson himself. In fact, we just had a universally regarded transcendent running back prospect last year in Todd Gurley.
We’ve seen 16 different running backs selected in the front half of the first round over the past 15 years, or picks I would qualify as “talents worth bending the unwritten rules” on drafting the position and here’s how Elliott looks compared to those players entering the NFL from an athletic and final season production standpoint.
Objectively, Elliott is in the middle of road here across the board in terms of athletic and production profiles. He’s far from being alone in terms of skipping out on the agility drills as the league emphasis 40-yard dash times, and in the jumping drills, he’s actually near the bottom, which is relatively disappointing from a decorated high school track and field stud who’s main area of excellence was the hurdle.
Don’t mistake any of this as true shade on Elliott, just a sobering realization that there are no such things as unicorns created through profile or draft capital invested. I’m also not specifically here to say no one should draft Elliott highly, because from a fantasy perspective for his outlook, we actually want him to be selected as highly as possible. Looking at the same group of backs, all except for Cedric Benson and C.J. Spiller were handed the keys to tangible volume from the jump of their careers, averaging double-digit touches per game during their rookie seasons.
All of these backs gave us at least one top-24 scoring PPR season during their careers except for William Green (without including Melvin Gordon yet). Even backs we saw wash out quickly such as Trent Richardson and Cadillac Williams were pressed into heavy volume immediately that gave us positive returns early on. Subsequent opportunity and production after his rookie season is more of a gray area, but volume is the name of the game at the position and if a team is going to sink big time capital into acquiring Elliott, it’s highly probable he’s walking into significant touches that will be turned into usable fantasy production right away and will likely be afforded ample opportunity even if he does struggle initially. He’s a virtual lock to be the type of draft pick that has to severely prove that he can’t play in the league, which inherently holds value.
When it comes to the latter, I believe he will be one of the incoming backs that proves he’s deserving of inheriting that volume, too. 46.5 percent of Elliott’s runs went for five or more yards in 2014 and 45 percent last year; both marks were tops among backs with 150 plus carries and he only trailed C.J. Prosise (48.1 percent) and Jordan Howard (47.1 percent) were better among this draft class.
Ohio State has a sensational offensive line and an offensive scheme proven effective, but Elliott also created a lot on his own. Outside of being a proven, productive workhorse, I also need to see plays where college backs can continuously create yardage on their own merit and Elliott can do that using his size, vision or speed alone or a combination of his entire arsenal.
Outside of self-creation, the most endearing part of Elliott as a runner is his spatial awareness and angles on interior runs while using his size on second level defenders. He has great feet behind the line of scrimmage and regularly turns negative to short yardage gains into three and four yard runs and what should be three and four yard runs into long gains. He’s what I refer to as a Mario Bros. back because of his ability to seamlessly change his size and target area throughout a play.
Elliott isn’t a consistent aesthetically “make you miss back” that creates a ton of missed tackles with elusiveness and he does deliver/absorb contact regularly, but when it comes to the full package of hitting small openings and then putting on a clinic in evaporating angles on the second level, there’s this.
We are in an era where college backs aren’t asked to pass protect a great deal and/or aren’t good at it. Elliott is excellent in his willingness to block and more than effective at it as he allowed just one sack in 108 opportunities in protection, which came in the final game of the season. He’s also a viable receiver, making him a rare complete three down option out of the packaging for an offense to build their foundation around.
As an extra feather in his cap, Elliott is also as sure handed as they come, fumbling just once every 162.5 touches on offense, the second best rate in this class. At a position where perfection isn’t required for success, it still doesn’t hurt to be playing with a full deck and Elliott still checks off every box you’re looking for in a one stop option at his position.
While we know that Elliott is slam dunk evaluation, does that still make him a slam dunk fantasy pick at 1.01? Because he’s better suited to work in all components of an offense, I have him over Derrick Henry as the best running back available since Henry has to shed the stigma of being more than a big back and crack into passing game while it’s very likely Elliott is used in multiple facets from day one.
So that leaves him in competition with the receiving options. With no clear blue chip receiver prospect as we’ve had available over the previous few seasons, you’re blindly paying for the position over the better player entering the league while also being the one with more projectable immediate opportunity if you’re going Laquon Treadwell or Josh Doctson over Elliott. There’s something to be said for sticking with the receiver in the face of a decision such as this as I showcased there’s no true sure thing, even when we believe there is, but given Elliott’s age adjusted production which will keep him on the plus side of the running back apex for several seasons and likely high capital investment into acquiring him, I believe there’s more than moderate probability he turns out to be a successful fantasy selection. While early in the process I was ready to entrench my footing on going with a receiver at 1.01 no matter what, there’s just not as large of a step of faith to take in believing Elliott succeeds as there is with those at the top of the receiving class (in this regard I also believe you can make the case for Henry as the 1.02), even while gaining consciousness that there’s a long term floor here that nobody seemingly wants to acknowledge as being relevant.