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Fantasy Football: Will Dallas Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott bounce back in a major way in 2021?

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) runs the ball against the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason, and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

There isn’t much evidence of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott being anything other than an elite football player. In college, Elliott carried the Ohio State Buckeyes to the 2014 National Championship and then put together a monster junior campaign. He led the NFL in rushing yards per game in each of 2016, 2017 and 2018 before producing a more than respectable 1,777 total yards and 14 touchdowns in 2019.

It was only in 2020 when things got rough for Elliott — and they did so in a hurry. Overall, Zeke scored just eight total touchdowns, coughed the ball up on six separate occasions and tied for the position lead in drops.

And yet, Elliott finished as the PPR RB9 on the back of 296 touches. It was another example of elite volume trumping porous efficiency in fantasy land, although the performance as a whole was troubling when projecting Elliott’s long-term future with the Cowboys.

What follows is a breakdown of just how bad last season went for Zeke, as well as what we should make of him as a fantasy asset ahead of 2021.

Elliott wasn’t very good in 2020

Part of the reason why Elliott faces more scrutiny than a typical running back is due to the reality that he’s the highest-paid player at the position, with an absurd contract worth up to $90 million. Like most NFL contracts, there are outs that would allow the Cowboys to get out of the deal before paying that entire sum. Either way, only Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is making more on an annual basis.

Zeke has a top-three contract in the league among running backs, but his level of performance on the field last season didn’t come close to meeting that standard.

This was true as a rusher:

  • PFF rushing grade: 69.5 (No. 35 among 47 RBs with at least 100 carries in 2020)
  • Missed tackles forced per attempt: 0.18 (tied for No. 21)
  • Yards per carry: 4 (tied for No. 37)
  • Yards after contact per attempt: 2.8 (tied for No. 28)
  • Stuff rate: 10.7% (No. 43)

And also as a receiver:

  • PFF receiving grade: 47.6 (No. 38 among 46 RBs with at least 25 targets in 2020)
  • Drops: 8 (tied for No. 1)
  • Yards per reception: 6.5 (tied for No. 35)
  • Yards after the catch per reception: 7.1 (No. 31)
  • Yards per route run: 0.87 (tied for No. 34)
  • Passer rating when targeted: 77.9 (No. 43)

Things weren’t all terrible. Elliott looked incredibly spry while racking up 127 total yards and two touchdowns against the Rams in Week 1. He managed to reach 100 total yards in an additional five games, most notably amassing 11 forced missed tackles on 19 carries against the Eagles in Week 16 — tied with Week 17 Derrick Henry for the highest single-week mark from any running back in 2020.

Zeke was a below-average professional football player by just about any metric last season. The reality that his backup Tony Pollard continued to make the most out of his opportunities made Elliott's low-level performance even tougher to stomach. Overall, Pollard is 1) PFF’s fifth highest-graded running back over the past two years, 2) tied with Nick Chubb for the highest rate of missed tackles forced per rush, and 3) tied with Derrick Henry for the most yards after contact per rush.

The eye test backs up what the numbers tell us: Pollard is objectively a stud.

It seems more likely than not that the Cowboys will continue to feature Elliott well ahead of Pollard despite the discrepancy in their respective performances over the past two seasons. Consider that Pollard impressively gained 132 total yards and scored two touchdowns in Week 15 with Zeke sidelined, only to get out-touched 23 to 10 the following week. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has roughly 90 million reasons for the team to continue to treat Elliott as its three-down workhorse.

Luckily for Zeke’s future fantasy investors, the 2021 Cowboys offense should be a more fantasy-friendly environment.

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