While this year’s NFL draft brought some great new talent into the league, there is undoubtedly one player that has garnered the majority of the spotlight. Ezekiel Elliott was largely considered the best overall rookie fantasy prospect coming into this year at the time of the draft. That hype swelled when the Dallas Cowboys selected the Ohio State standout with the 4th overall pick. There were some eyebrows raised considering all the question marks on the defense, but it’s apparent Jerry Jones saw something special in the former Buckeye. They accumulated a multitude of injuries to key positions last season and still have quite a few question marks. The Cowboys were terrible last season at times, and the addition of Elliott may not necessarily lead them to the playoffs. However, fantasy football is an entirely different animal, and Elliott could be the guy that will lead you to the playoffs and a championship.
First, I’ll state the obvious. While Zeke is a special talent, I would not bother writing this if he were drafted by another team (the Cleveland Browns for example). That being said, the rookie will have the opportunity to run behind what is largely considered to be the best offensive line in the National Football League. This same line allowed Demarco Murray to shatter expectations and break Emmitt Smith’s franchise single season rushing record back in 2014. The same unit plowed the way for Darren McFadden last season allowing him to rush for over 1,000 yards for just the second time in his disappointing 8 year career. Unless you’re willing to argue the strengths of a player like Run DMC over Zeke’s, then I’m sure we can all agree that the latter should fair much better in his first NFL campaign. Which brings me to my next point….
I’m willing to argue, and I’m sure most people will agree, that Elliott is a more complete back than both Murray and McFadden. His vision is superb. His pass blocking is exceptional. He is an incredible receiver out of the backfield with an advanced route tree for a running back. In short, he is the total package. Yes, the Cowboys still have McFadden. Yes, they signed Alfred Morris in the offseason. However, I simply do not see either player posing a threat to Zeke’s carries except for the occasional breather. Make no mistake, he will be the focal point of the Cowboys’ rushing attack.
I already touched on the Cowboys’ atrocious 2015 season, in which they were plagued with injuries. The most notable injury befell franchise QB Tony Romo in the 4th game of the season, which caused Dallas to play Russian roulette with three of the NFL’s most incredibly mediocre signal callers for the rest of the season: Matt Cassel, Brandon Weeden, and Kellen Moore. This season Jerry Jones’ favorite superhero, Captain Glass, is back at the helm for the Cowboys. There is, however, one major change from last year. The Cowboys selected Dak Prescott in the 4th round after failing to move up to grab one of the quarterbacks they had their eye on in this year’s draft. As I am writing this, Dak-Mania is in full swing in Dallas. The Cowboys seemingly struck gold with the Mississippi State prospect, and he looks to be a legit back up for Romo. Why is this relevant to Ezekiel Elliott’s 2016 dominance? One major factor in the collapse of Dallas’ 2015 season was the quality of talent they had on the field after Romo was injured. Defenses were pinning their ears back, stacking the box, and had little respect for the passing game. To be fair, I’m not saying Dak Prescott will be the Cowboys’ savior when Tony Romo inevitably gets injured again, which he already has with another back injury. I’m simply pointing out the offense would be left in what appears to be much more capable and dynamic hands than last year. This, in turn, will allow more opportunities for the Cowboys to run the football against more conventional defensive schemes.
In order to confidently draft Zeke as your first overall running back selection, one must take a look at the rest of the candidates as well. Adrian Peterson surprised many and was stellar last season. However, the perennial All-Pro will be turning 32 this year. At some point he will begin losing a step here and there. I’m betting we see some of that degeneration this season. Other fantasy players may very well have hopped aboard the Todd Gurley train. Gurley was impressive last season racking up 186 fantasy points despite missing the first three games of the season. My only criticism of Gurley’s situation is this: the Rams are not a very good football team. The offense will be manned by either Case Keenum or Jared Goff. Neither option gives me very much confidence in the Rams being a very explosive offense this season. Sure, they’re going to run the ball. A lot. Time will tell whether Gurley can live up to expectations when every defense he faces is game planning for him. Last year’s other breakout rookie, David Johnson, is also a trendy pick and has been moving up draft boards. I love everything about Johnson’s game. What concerns me is all the mouths there are to feed on the Arizona Cardinals’ offense. Carson Palmer has three potential starting wide receivers at his disposal. Veteran running back, Chris Johnson is also still with the team. Bruce Arians has said multiple times this offseason that they will still utilize CJ2K this year. More recently the Cardinals OC, Harold Goodwin, stated that both players “are even” when running the football. Other fantasy studs will be drafted highly as well. Le’Veon Bell, Jamaal Charles, and Devonta Freeman are all popular choices. However, Bell is suspended for the first three games, Charles is 29 and coming off his second ACL injury, and Devonta Freeman is very unlikely to replicate his 11 rushing touchdown performance from last year (9 of them came from weeks 2-6 last season). Ezekiel Elliott is a young runner with great pass catching skills that happens to be an incredible pass blocker in a very beneficial situation. Seems like a no brainier.
The last time a rookie running back led the NFL in fantasy points was when Eric Dickerson exploded into the league in 1983, twelve years before Zeke was born. It’s difficult to put your faith into a player that has yet to play a regular season football game in the NFL. However, Ezekiel Elliott may very well be a once in a generation player with all the tools an organization looks for in a star running back. This is the year of the Zeke. Don’t be the one smacking yourself at the end of the year wondering why you passed him up. The Zeke-Virus is real!