There has been talk about Ezekiel Elliott being the next running back in NFL history to top 2,000 rushing yards in a season. With Elliott’s talent and youth, mixed in with the Dallas Cowboys offensive line and tendency to run the ball, he is a logical choice. If he could do it he would join the exclusive 2,000 club which consists of just seven players.
Eric Dickerson: 2,105 (1984)
Adrian Peterson: 2,097 (2012)
Jamal Lewis: 2,066 (2003)
Barry Sanders: 2,053 (1997)
Terrell Davis: 2,008 (1998)
Chris Johnson: 2,006 (2009)
O.J. Simpson: 2,003 (1973)
It’s an enticing thought, but is it realistic? Probably not, as a player has to have an epic season to make it. To do it, you really need to average around 5.5 yards per carry, and carry the ball 360 times or more. Of course those numbers can vary, but that gives you an idea of just how hard it is to accomplish. Teams are more concerned than ever about burning out their running backs, which can limit the carries. The Cowboys have to be cognizant of the fact that they have a special talent in Elliott, and they need to manage his carries if they want to maximize his career.
So 2,000 yards is a fun thought, and it’s within the realm of possibility for Elliott, but not very realistic. Instead, let’s try to get a sensible read on what Elliott might accomplish in 2018.
Elliott has played 25 games in two years and has averaged 22.6 carries per game. Over a season that would be 361 carries. That number would put Elliott on track for the 2,000 club, but he would need to average 5.54 yards per carry at that pace. In 2016, a phenomenal season for Elliott, he only averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Over his 25 games he’s averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
So if we just take Elliott’s averages to date - 361 carries over a 16-game season with a 4.6 yards per carry average - he would total 1,660 yards in a season. If we adjust for the Cowboys offensive line being worse in 2017 than 2016, and use his 5.1 yards per carry average from 2016 and apply that to his career average of 361 carries in a season, we still “only” end up with 1,841 yards. Just more proof of how incredibly hard a 2,000-yard season is to accomplish.
If we compared Elliott to what other leading backs have done over the past five years, where would that leave us?
Since 2013, only three running backs have broken 1,500 yards in a season. Elliott’s 1,621 yards in 2016, DeMarco Murray with 1,845 in 2014, and LeSean McCoy with 1,607 in 2013.
In general, around 320 carries per season is the average for the leader for the past five seasons. Only DeMarco Murray’s 2014 season (392 carries) is an outlier in that number. Elliott led the league in carries in 2016 with 322 carries. Additionally, among the top 10 rushing leaders each year since 2013, the top yards per carry average is around five yards.
320 carries with a five yards per carry average gives you 1,600 yards. This is very similar to what Elliott did in 2016 (1,621 yards). So maximized historical averages over the last five years would give you something like what Elliott did in 2106. Previously we used a peak Elliott average of 361 carries and a 5.1 yards per carry average to get us to 1,841 yards.
So we’re going to compromise and set an over/under for 2018 at 1,750 yards. That’s a huge number and would be the second-best number over the last half decade behind only Murray’s remarkable 2014 season with the Cowboys. We’re pushing the number for a couple of reasons. The Cowboys line should be a little better in 2018. La’el Collins is now settled in at right tackle with some experience, Tyron Smith claims he’s as healthy as he’s been in a while, Cam Fleming can provide decent depth, and Connor Williams looks like he could be an upgrade at left guard. Additionally, Elliott should also be running with a chip on his shoulder after the events of the 2017 season.
On the other hand, the Cowboys may let Dak Prescott run a little more this season on read-option type plays, and they could also use Tavon Austin some as a running back and take more carries away from Elliott. Also, without Dez Bryant and Jason Witten, how will the passing offense work? If teams don’t respect the passing game they could load the box on Elliott.
And finally, there’s the question of whether the Cowboys are willing to run Elliott into the ground. Of the 2,000+ rushers mentioned above, all had significant drop-offs in production the year following their 2,000+ yard season.
Eric Dickerson: 1,234 (1985)
Adrian Peterson: 1,266 (2013)
Jamal Lewis: 1,006 (2004)
Barry Sanders: 1,491 (1998)
Terrell Davis: 211 (1997)
Chris Johnson: 1,364 (2010)
O.J. Simpson: 1,125 (1974)
Football Outsiders coined the term “The Curse of 370” back in 2004, which states that if a running back has 370+ carries in a year, his yardage the following year will drop off (or he’s injured).
These backs [with 370+ carries] basically fall into three categories: guys who got injured the next year, guys who were never as good again, and guys who are Eric Dickerson.
The most recent victim of the “curse” was DeMarco Murray, who carried the ball 392 times for the Cowboys in 2014, and led the NFL with 1,845 rushing yards. That performance impressed the Cowboys so much that they hardly even tried to re-sign Murray, perhaps because they had an idea of what would be coming: Murray rushed for just 702 yards for the Chip Kelly-enhanced Eagles in 2015.
Elliott had 191 carries in his first eight (pre-suspension) games last year, which put him on pace for 382 carries over 16 games. Will the Cowboys give him a similar workload in 2018, even at the risk of overworking his body, or will they be cautious with their star?
Over to you BTB, are you taking the over or under on 1,750 yards?
Will Ezekiel Elliott rush for over or under 1,750 yards in 2018?
This poll is closed
Over, I’m buying a huge year from Zeke.
Under, the Cowboys will be cautious with their star.