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Why Ezekiel Elliot will continue to feast in 2020

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Ezekiel Elliot has been one of the most reliable running backs in football since entering the league in 2016. There may be backs who are more agile (Saquon Barkley) or better in the pass game (Christian McCaffrey), but Zeke’s combination of spectacular running, pass-catching, and pass protection are unique.

With pass-happy Mike McCarthy coming to town, Cowboys fans and fantasy football fans alike are nervous about the stud running back’s production in 2020. No need to worry; Zeke will be well fed throughout the 2020 season. Here’s why.

Ezekiel Elliot will eat during the 2020 season
Image credit – Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
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The Jones/Williams experience

Elliot’s production will be tied to how McCarthy uses him in Dallas. So let’s take a look at McCarthy’s history with running backs. He is notorious among the fantasy football community for using his backs in frustrating ways. For a recent example, go no further than Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Both backs were drafted by Green Bay in 2017, and both were used in the McCarthy offense.

Critics pointed out that Williams got much more work than Jones in 2017 (153 rushes to just 81), despite being much less efficient (3.6 Y/A vs 5.5 Y/A). In 2018, this imbalance seemed to correct itself slightly, with Jones seeing 133 carries to Williams’ 121. Their efficiency stayed the same, as Jones once again posted 5.5 Y/A and Williams a mediocre 3.8 Y/A. With this discrepancy showing up again, fans further criticized McCarthy for seemingly ignoring the better running back. After Jones’ breakout in 2019, the conclusion was clear: McCarthy either couldn’t see, or wouldn’t use the better player.

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McCarthy logic

However, a closer look reveals many of the reasons McCarthy continued to use Williams over Jones. Williams was a fourth round selection, compared to Jones who was drafted in the fifth round. It is completely logical to spend a portion of their first season trying to figure out how each back looks in the system. And as good as Jones was in 2019, there were obvious deficiencies to his game during his rookie year.

Early on, Jones struggled in pass protection and when your most valuable asset on the field is Aaron Rodgers, a head coach should value pass-protection highly and Williams was simply better than Jones in this regard. Jones also dealt with knee issues in 2017, which kept him sidelined for four games and hindered him in others.

McCarthy with an elite running back

Once McCarthy knows his running back is well-rounded, he has no issues trusting them with the full workload. After the first four weeks in 2018, in which Jones and Williams continued to split the load, Jones out-carried Williams by a significant margin (97 to 28) for seven straight weeks until McCarthy was fired. Clearly, Jones proved his worth as a pass-protector and all-around back. In these weeks, Jones showed glimpses of his 2019 breakout, posting 700 total yards and 8 touchdowns.

For a preview of Dak Prescott’s 2020 season, click here.

Jones is the most talented back McCarthy coached in his tenure at Green Bay (unless you count Eddie Lacy, which I…don’t). To find a true first round talent such as McCarthy now has in Ezekiel Elliot, you have to go back to his tenure with the Saints.

From 2000-2004, McCarthy was the offensive coordinator for a rushing attack that eclipsed 1,000 yards five straight times. Ricky Williams, drafted fifth overall in 1999, posted 1,000 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2000 in just 10 games under McCarthy. He followed this up in 2001 with 1,245 yards and 7 total touchdowns. Deuce McAllister (a fantastic football name) replaced Williams from 2002-2004. Also a first round pick, Deuce posted 1,388 yards, 1,641 yards, and 1,088 yards in those years.

What’s the lesson in all this? Despite his reputation, McCarthy jumps at the chance to have a feature back: they just have to prove it first.

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Ezekiel Elliot has proven his value

No one has proven their worth on the field more than Elliot has. In 56 games, he has put up 7,024 total yards (5,405 rushing and 1,614 receiving). That averages out to a staggering 125.4 yards per game. For reference, McCaffrey has averaged 113.4 yards per game, and Barkley has averaged 119.4 yards per game. Both are impressive numbers, but don’t quite stack up to Elliot despite the smaller sample sizes. When Ezekiel Elliot is fed, Ezekiel Elliot eats.

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Zeke the protector

In addition, Elliot has proven to be an invaluable asset as a pass blocker. His 2016 draft profile includes his proficiency in this area, noting only one allowed sack and zero pressures (besides that sack) in 108 pass blocking snaps. This success has continued into the NFL.

Zeke has been nothing short of a phenomenal pass-protector in his four years. Even his all-pro offensive linemen have been quoted as saying Zeke is like a sixth offensive lineman on the field. That’s high praise coming from one of the best units in football over the past four years. This proficiency allows him to remain on the field at all times, leading to more snaps and more opportunity than almost any other back.

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What about the passing game?

Critics of Elliot (the few that there are) point to his lack of passing upside compared to the likes of McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Barkley as reasons to fade him as a top-3 back this year.

However, Zeke’s receiving numbers hold their own when compared to the top pass catching backs in the league (disregarding McCaffrey, who is admittedly on a planet of his own). In 2018, Zeke saw 95 targets, good for fifth in the league, and 71 targets in 2019.

With the addition of CeeDee Lamb, and the potential of Tony Pollard as a pass-catcher, it might seem reasonable to suggest that Zeke doesn’t see those 71 targets again. However, the fact that the Cowboys vacated 190 targets this offseason (second most in the league) has seemingly been brushed aside.

Running backs are generally the beneficiary of such situations, more so than the top wide-receivers on a team. This points to the fact that Zeke should actually see more targets than last year. You can expect him to be near or among the top-5 most targeted running backs in the 2020 season.

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Ezekiel Elliot in a McCarthy offense

In 2019, the Cowboys ran the ball 42% of the time. Elliot was most successful running out of 11 personnel, a package with three receivers, one tight end and one running back. On these plays, Elliot was “successful” (defined by getting 40% of yards needed on first down, 60% on second down, or 100% on third and fourth down) on 58% of his carries. On all combined carries, Elliot was successful 53% of the time.

11 personnel was the formation in which Elliot was most efficient in 2019. This is largely due to the fact that having three receivers on the field forces defenses to take a player away from the box, leading to more favorable numbers for Elliot and his blockers. Unfortunately for Zeke, Garret saw fit to run the ball only 32% of the time when they lined up in 11 personnel. This drastically reduced the chances Elliot had to run the ball when he was afforded his greatest advantage against the defense.

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This should change in 2020. For one, the Cowboys have a surplus of offensive weapons heading into the season, including their three receivers (Cooper, Gallup, and CeeDee Lamb), tight end Blake Jarwin, and Elliot.

To allow all three explosive receivers on the field at once, 11 personnel should be the favored package to run in 2020. McCarthy also showed a strong preference for 11 personnel in his time at Green Bay, which further suggests it will be the base package for the Cowboys in 2020.

The Cowboys’ offense could look similar to the Rams’ offense of 2018, which ran 11 personnel 88% of the time. Even if they don’t hit that lofty 88% mark, they should run this personnel more than the 67% they used it last year. This will increase opportunities to get Elliot the ball when he is most effective, thereby improving his efficiency.

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Projections

What can we expect from Elliot in 2020? Despite McCarthy’s reputation, Zeke will see plenty of opportunities in the new offense just as he did in the old. He had 355 total touches in 2019 (301 rushing attempts and 54 catches) and logic suggests he should see slightly less (yet more efficient) rushing attempts in 2020, combined with a small uptick in catches. 

Projected stats:

  • 275 rushing attempts
  • 1,300 rushing yards (4.7 Y/A)
  • 10 TD’s
  • 60 catches/450 yards (7.5 Y/C)
  • 2 receiving TD’s
  • 307 total PPR points.

This solidly places Elliot as a top three pick in any draft. Draft him and lock him in as your RB1 all season long. 

For more running back rankings, read here.

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