In the final article in our series highlighting potential values in the 2020 rushing yards prop bet market, we turn our attention to arguably the king of the position in the last four years, Zeke Elliott. After flying out of the gate in 2016, Elliott has logged three solid years and has an awe-inspiring career to date. However, with a new coach in town, a viable running back partner for the first time, as well as entering his fifth year in the league, is there potential value to be found in Elliott’s season-long rushing yards prop bet?
Can we accurately project a player’s rushing output?
While observing the last 10 years of rushing data from the NFL for Pro Football Network’s Expected Fantasy Points (xFP) metric, it became clear that the trend between carries and rushing yards could have other utility than just for fantasy. In a similar vein to xFP, we can use the historical data to project a players rushing yards and, therefore, utilize it to examine season-long prop bets.
Now while it will be no shock that there is a correlation between carries and yards, what is important is the significance of the trend, and this one has some impressive numbers. A correlation over 0.95 is one that is exceptionally significant, and both the correlation (0.986) and line of best fit on the graph (0.965) are above that magic number.
This correlation allows us to move somewhat away from discussing the strength of schedule and offensive line rankings. Those elements can be useful when the numbers are close to a particular threshold for determining whether a wager is worth placing or not.
How can we utilize this knowledge to our advantage?
Using a plot of carries against rushing yards, we can project the rushing yards that an average running back would have on a given number of carries utilizing the line of best fit. Let’s say, for example, that a running back is projected for 200 carries in a given season; we can calculate that on average, he would finish the season with 856.5 rushing yards. If you would like to hear about this in more detail, then check out the recent episode of the Against the Spread podcast where we discussed it in more detail.
If we then combine that with a view of the player’s history in the NFL, we can cut through the noise of strength of schedules and offensive line rankings to determine the likelihood that a given player will go over or under their projected rushing yards for any given season.
Is there value in Zeke Elliott’s rushing yards prop bet in 2020?
As you might expect for a player who has topped 1350 yards in each season he has been active for more than 10 games, Elliott’s rushing yards line in 2020 is among the top three this season. Having missed just a total of eight games in his career, sportsbooks have shown no hesitation in setting Elliott’s season-long rushing yard prop in the 1250-1300 range.
Those numbers put him in a similar range to that of Nick Chubb, which is either second or third behind Derrick Henry, depending on which book you use.
What does the chart tell us?
Our rushing yard model tells us that for Elliott to meet the middle of that range of outcomes (1275.5), he would need to log at least 297 carries while performing like an average running back. It is worth noting that last season, Elliott’s 1357 rushing yards outperformed his expected rushing yards (1296) by 61. Throughout his career, Elliott averages 4.6 yards per attempt, which is also almost exactly what he has averaged in the last two seasons.
Can Zeke Elliott go over 275 carries once again in 2020?
Elliott’s skills as a running back have never been in doubt since he entered the league, as he has racked up over 5400 rushing yards at 96.5 yards per game in his career. However, Elliott has never managed to break that magic five yards per attempt barrier that he achieved in his rookie year. Since then, Elliott averaged 4.1, 4.7, and 4.5 yards per attempt in the last three seasons, respectively.
During those four seasons, Elliott has averaged 20.9 carries per game, peaking at a whopping 24.2 carries per game in 2017. However, the last two seasons have seen Elliott’s carries per game drop to 20.3 in 2018 and then 18.8 in 2019. Those demonstrate what appears to be a concerted effort by the Cowboys to take the ball out Elliott’s hands at times in 2019.
There are two reasons why that might be the case. Firstly, Elliott signed a long-term deal ahead of the 2019 season, meaning that last season suddenly saw the Cowboys in a position of needing to protect a long-term asset in Elliott for the first time. Secondly, there was the emergence of Tony Pollard, who averaged 5.3 yards per attempt across 86 carries. That 5.1 yards per attempt is the highest number that any back has averaged while sharing a backfield with Elliott in Dallas.
The emergence of Pollard, who is also a handy pass catcher, allows the Cowboys to keep Elliott fresher in 2020. While Elliott has never been an injury issue for the Cowboys in his career, entering his fifth year in the league with over 1150 carries has the risk of taking its toll. With Elliott likely to be considered a crucial element of the Cowboys potential playoff push, look for them to bring that carries per game number down below 18 this season.
What is a realistic expectation for Elliott in 2020?
The 301 carries that Elliott had last year are perhaps the ceiling for my projections from him in 2020. Unless Pollard misses significant time, it would be a poor use of resources for the Cowboys to put another 300 carries on Elliott in 2020. Therefore, I project a more realistic number of carries for Elliott to be in the region of 280 this season (17.5 per game).
Current projections around the NFL industry have Elliott in a similar region of between 270 and 300 carries, which is very similar to my current expectations. If we plug that 280 into our expected rushing yard calculations, then that would equate to 1204 rushing yards. If we also compare with Elliott’s 4.6 yards per attempt career average, then that would equate to 1288 yards, which is in the area of his current rushing yardage prop bet.
However, that feels more like a ceiling for Elliott in 2020, given his 4.5 yards per attempt average in 2019, and the potential that we could see him carrying the ball less than 280 times if Pollard commands a more prominent role this year.
What does history tell us?
If we look back over the past decade at backs who had between 252 and 308 carries (10% either side of a projected 280 carries to split the difference in projection systems), then we get an interesting range of results.
In total, 72 running backs have registered a season total of carries in that range. 21 of those (29%) have gone over 1275 rushing yards, with 18 over 1300. Of those 38 to go over 1275, 14 were by backs who registered more than 250 carries. Therefore, even if Elliott does not pass 280 carries, it is unlikely that he breaks through that 1275 yardage marker, which is the most common prop bet available for his rushing yards.
Additionally, 11 of those 21 backs managed to go over that 1275 mark while averaging less than 4.7 yards per attempt, which has been Elliott’s maximum yards per attempt over the past two seasons. Therefore, unless we suddenly see Elliott jump back up over the 4.7 yards per attempt mark, it is tough to see how he can be a sure bet to break through that 1275 range.
The final verdict on Zeke Elliott’s 2020 rushing yards prop bet
There is no doubt that Elliott is a talented running back, but he is in a situation where for the first time, the Cowboys have a viable secondary option. Additionally, with Elliott’s long-term deal in place, we may see the Cowboys opting to protect their top back just a little while hoping not to compromise their chances in 2020. All of that factors in when considering Elliott’s rushing yards and looking for value in the prop bet market.
Another element to consider is the uncertainty of the 2020 season. With players potentially having to miss significant time at the facility, including the potential of multiple games, any questionable player props should always see the “under” considered as a play. Of course, this can work both ways, in terms of the absence of potential competition for touches, but just missing a game or two could be devastating to any back’s chances of going over on their rushing yards.
This recommendation comes in three tiers. If your sportsbook has Elliott projected at 1300 yards rushing yards, then this is a two-unit play. However, if the line they are offering is set in the 1275-1300 region, then I will look to play safer with a one-unit play. If the line is below 1275, then this is a play I will look to stay away from. I am placing the wager at DraftKings, where the line is 1275.5. I like taking the “under” at -110 for one unit.
1u – Zeke Elliott under 1275.5 rushing yards | -110