Looking back on Ezekiel Elliott’s 2021 season to determine if you should you draft him in fantasy football

Is Ezekiel Elliott a crucial player heading into the 2022 fantasy football season? What impact did his injury have on him, and should you draft him this year?

There are a lot of things we just can’t know heading into each NFL season. One thing we’re pretty good at spotting is player evaluations that are going to be very important for the upcoming season. Ezekiel Elliott is one of those players. Let’s examine Elliott’s 2021 fantasy football performance and determine if he’s a value at his current ADP.

Ezekiel Elliott is one of the most important players for the 2022 fantasy football season

I can’t tell you for sure what will happen this season. What I can tell you is we really need to get this correct. Being on the right side of the Zeke evaluation could win or lose you a fantasy football championship. So, why is Elliott so important?

Elliott’s ADP has never been this low

Literally. Never. Zeke was already a first-round pick as a rookie. Since then, the only year he fell out of the first round was the year he was suspended for six games. But even then, he didn’t typically make it out of the second round.

In 2022, Elliott’s ADP is around 30th overall. He’s going in the middle of the third round of 12-team Sleeper drafts.

Depending on your perspective, this may seem high or low. We know exactly why Zeke’s ADP is where it is. He’s a 27-year-old running back with 1,938 career touches coming off the worst season of his career. At the same time, he’s still the lead back for one of the fastest-paced and most explosive offenses in the NFL.

To determine if fantasy managers should be targeting Elliott his year, we need to try and decipher whether his poor 2021 was due to his PCL injury or a sign of decline as he enters his seventh NFL season.

Analyzing Ezekiel Elliott’s 2021 performance

In 2021, Zeke totaled a career-low 1,289 yards from scrimmage. Yes, technically, this was 37 yards more than his 2017 season, but he only played 10 games that year due to suspension. 2021 was the worst season of Zeke’s career. He averaged 14.8 PPR fantasy points per game.

It’s important to put Zeke’s 2021 performance into context because we know about the PCL injury he played through. Elliott allegedly suffered the injury in Week 4. While it may not have affected him immediately, it undoubtedly played a role.

From Weeks 1-6, Elliott averaged 19.1 ppg. He was the overall RB5 over that span. From Weeks 8 through the end of the season, Elliott averaged 12.5 ppg. He was the overall RB22 over that span.

Should we blame Zeke’s knee injury?

It certainly looks like the knee played a role. After all, Elliott was his usual elite RB1 self to start the season. His sudden falloff seems unexpected … but was it?

Here’s the thing some fantasy managers don’t want to admit: Zeke has been declining for a couple of years now. Elliott’s fantasy points per game peaked at 21.8 in 2018. It’s decreased every subsequent season. Zeke still posted a very good 19.5 ppg in 2019, but he was at just 14.9 in 2020. It’s cool to blame the knee injury for 2021, but what was his excuse in 2020?

Elliott’s declining efficiency

Let’s start with the most basic analysis. From 2016-2019, Elliott averaged about 4.6 yards per carry. In 2020, that fell to 4.0. In 2019, Zeke averaged five evaded tackles per game. That dropped to 4.6 in 2020 and 4.4 in 2021.

Elliott used to be an explosive runner. As a rookie, 4.4% of his rushes went for 20+ yards. That number was 2.1% as a sophomore and 3.6% in his third season. Since 2019, Zeke’s 20+ yard rush rate has been 1.3% or 1.2% each year. The knee injury did not sap Elliott’s explosiveness — it was already gone.

What about Elliott’s volume?

Perhaps we can blame the knee injury for Zeke’s decline in volume. He averaged a career-low 16.7 touches per game last season.

So, what did 2020 look like when Elliott was completely healthy? He averaged 19.7 touches per game. The Cowboys were already reducing his workload.

Elliott’s target share was 20% in 2018. It’s dropped every year since and was just 12.2% in 2020 before falling even further to 10.2% in 2021. Meanwhile, Tony Pollard’s target share has increased every year he’s been in the NFL. It hit a career-best 8.1% last season.

I’ve been banging the drum that Pollard was a superior player to Elliott since before the 2020 season. Only recently has this become the consensus amongst NFL and fantasy football circles.

History does not favor Elliott bouncing back

Elliott is entering his seventh NFL season. That is a lot for a running back, especially one that has largely been an iron man throughout his career. Zeke has missed exactly three games in his career not due to suspension, and two of them were in Week 17 when the Cowboys were resting starters.

Since 2010, 85 running backs have reached their seventh NFL season and played at least eight games. Of those, 46 were viewed as annual fantasy-relevant running backs. Of those 46 running backs, only 2014 Matt Forte averaged over 20 ppg — 32 of them averaged under 14 ppg.

Meanwhile, Elliott has a back behind him in Pollard, who was better in every conceivable way last season. Pollard averaged 6.2 yards per touch, second-highest in the league. He also led the NFL with 2.5 yards per route run. Additionally, he blew Zeke out of the water in evaded tackle and explosive run rate.

The Cowboys will not give up on Elliott

Now for the part of the analysis that has nothing to do with on-field ability. The Cowboys gave Zeke six years and $90 million in 2019. He is due $12.4 million this season. Jerry Jones is not about to let his money go to waste.

Reports out of training camp have been the same as always — Elliott is the focal point of the running game. He’s the man. He’s going to get the ball.

It doesn’t matter that Pollard is the vastly more talented player at this point in their respective careers. It doesn’t matter that the Cowboys function better offensively with Pollard out there. Pollard will play plenty, and Zeke is not going to return to his pre-2020 workloads. But as long as he’s healthy — no, scratch that — as long as he’s capable of taking the field, Elliott will remain the lead back.

Elliott’s poor efficiency didn’t matter last year. It didn’t matter in 2020. Will it matter this year? If Pollard continues to outperform Elliott significantly, will the Cowboys further reduce Zeke’s work?

Should fantasy managers draft Elliott this season?

Elliott is being drafted firmly in the running back dead zone. Just because a running back goes in the dead zone doesn’t mean he should be dead to you. We’ve seen running backs emerge from the dead zone before. However, those running backs don’t typically look like Elliott.

We want to chase running backs that are ascending — younger, unproven backs with room to grow. We don’t want to roll the dice on old, declining running backs suddenly having a renaissance.

With that said, Zeke is in a unique situation where he’s the lead runner and goal-line back for an offense that is going to score a lot of points this season. Regardless of how well Pollard plays, I highly doubt he takes any of Elliott’s goal-line work.

Zeke rushed for 10 touchdowns last season. That’s about his floor this year. Even if he totals just 1,300 yards from scrimmage and catches 50 passes, with 10 scores, that’s 14.1 ppg. That would’ve put Elliott around RB20 in ppg last season. He’s being drafted as the RB16.

As a result, I can’t say Elliott is a full stay-away in the mid-to-late third round. However, the likelihood of getting a return to the 18-20 ppg levels during his early 20s is low. Zeke’s ceiling is more like 16 ppg in 2022.

I’m not going to go so far as to say Zeke is done. He’s certainly done being an elite running back. But he’s not going to suddenly be out of the NFL in 2023.

To sum it all up, Elliott’s 2022 profile is not the type of player fantasy football managers should be targeting at his ADP. But if he falls into the fourth round, he’s probably worth the gamble.

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