Ezekiel Elliott Is About to Remind the NFL How Dominant He Can Be

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJuly 14, 2021

Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) warms up before an NFL football game against the New York Giants, Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger)
Adam Hunger/Associated Press

For most of the first four seasons of his NFL career, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott was as good (or better) than any player in the league at his position. Elliott topped 1,300 rushing yards three times, averaged over 95 rushing yards per game an equal number of times and led the league in rushing twice.

In 2020, the former Ohio State star played in 15 games but didn't hit the 1,000-yard mark. He averaged only 65.3 yards per game, almost 20 yards lower than in any other year, and tied a career high with half a dozen fumbles.

That has caused some to question Elliott's status as one of the game's best backs. But it also had as much to do with the situation around him as it did any deterioration of Elliott's considerable skills. The 25-year-old is reportedly determined to show last year was a fluke.

And both Cowboys opponents and fantasy football managers would be well advised to take heed of that.

Per Nick Eatman of the team's website, the usually talkative Elliott chose not to speak to reporters at OTAs or minicamp. Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott said Elliott looked like a man on a mission:

Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

"Zeke looks great. He's in the best shape of his life—looking fast. Everybody's seen the clips of him working out independently with his running back coach. His cuts, just how explosive he is.

"I'm excited to have a full year with him again and getting him healthy throughout the whole season. When Zeke's healthy and Zeke's doing his thing, he's the best running back in the league. It's just exciting to see him in the best shape of his life, or [at least the] best shape he's been in the NFL. That's going to be special for us moving forward."

Reserve running back Tony Pollard—who some have said should receive more work—agreed.

"He's definitely been locked in," Pollard said. "I can tell he took the right step forward this offseason, getting his body right and being in shape. Me and him worked out together this offseason. We're both locked in this offseason getting ready."

There's admittedly a lot of stink to wash off. With Prescott on the shelf with a fractured and dislocated right ankle, Elliott's production fell off a cliff. His yards per carry (4.0), yards per reception (6.5) and rushing touchdowns (six) were all career nadirs.

But that face-plant had more to do with the situation around him than a decline in his abilities.

With Andy Dalton starting behind center for nine games and Ben DiNucci and Garrett Gilbert one apiece, opposing defenses were free to load the box to stop the run. The offensive line was also ravaged by injuries and the retirement of five-time Pro Bowl center Travis Frederick.

That line isn't as dominant as it once was. But it's healthy again, and after Pro Football Focus ranked it sixth-worst in 2020, the Cowboys enter the 2021 campaign with the league's sixth-best unit, according to PFF.

Prescott is healthy again, too. In wide receivers Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb and Michael Gallup and tight ends Blake Jarwin and Dalton Schultz, Prescott has as many passing-game weaponry as any quarterback. In five games last year, the 27-year-old averaged 371.2 passing yards.

And while Elliott fell four spots in ESPN's annual ranking of the league's top 10 backs, he still checked in at No. 7, with one AFC coach calling him the most dangerous player in the Dallas offense.

"They need to give Zeke some of Dak's money," the coach said, via ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "He scares you the most on that offense."

It's not just Cowboys fans who should be excited about Elliott's prospects. Fantasy football enthusiasts should have him on their wish lists because Elliott has the potential to be the best value pick of 2021—a league-winner.

Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

Yes, Elliott's 2020 campaign didn't look any better from a fantasy perspective than an NFL one. After being drafted third on average, per Fantasy Football Calculator, Elliott finished the season 16th among running backs in points-per-reception fantasy points per game. It wasn't quite the disastrous outcome that befell managers who drafted the first two backs—Christian McCaffrey of the Carolina Panthers and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants—but it wasn't good.

However, Elliott still finished ninth in PPR points among running backs. The year before, he was fifth in PPR points per game and third in PPR points—and that was a so-so year by Elliott's standards. Prior to 2020, the lowest Elliott had finished in PPR points per game was sixth among running backs.

Elliott has been durable, playing 15 or more games four times in five seasons and 10 games in the other campaign. He has averaged 19.9 carries per contest over his career. He has been about as consistent from a fantasy perspective as a running back can be. Elliott and his situation scream "bounce back."

And he's regularly available in the back half of Round 1—in a recent industry draft, I got Elliott at 1.08.

This isn't to say Elliott is a lock to lead the NFL in rushing. Or that he will lead all running backs in fantasy points. There are no certainties when it comes to aspirations that lofty.

But after one down year wherein seemingly everything that could go wrong did, there is a perception that Elliott isn't capable of achieving those peaks anymore.

Don't act surprised when he shows that perception was incorrect.