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Why Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott should be the top running back taken in your fantasy drafts

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Our favorite running back should be our favorite fantasy running back.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If you are gearing up for the 2018 fantasy football season, you might have noticed that there are quite a few really good running backs to choose from this year. Every year there’s a new guy who breaks out and helps carry their team to a fantasy championship. Last year, it was Todd Gurley. The year before that it was David Johnson. Players like Devonta Freeman, DeMarco Murray, Jamaal Charles, and Adrian Peterson have all been top scoring fantasy running back over the last several years. It’s great to be able to land that guy.

Selecting the right running back could be the difference between hoisting your league’s championship trophy and ridicule or hazing, so it’s important to get it right. But sometimes that can be a difficult task. When attempting to stack the players on top of each other, sometimes it can be hard to differentiate one guy over the next. To help me rank players, I have put together a little scoring matrix. There are certain attributes that are very helpful in racking up fantasy points, so I have identified these five categories to be the most influential factors in determining a quality fantasy running back:

  • How many touches do they get?
  • How much are they involved in the red zone?
  • How good is their offense?
  • Are they consistent enough to trust their performance?
  • Can they stay healthy?

All these factors help paint a picture and it really comes in handy when you get down the list and trying to determine who’s better - Carlos Hyde or Isaiah Crowell? And when I started assigning numbers to these players, I came across a discovery Cowboys fans might appreciate - Ezekiel Elliott should be ranked no. 1 on your board.

Zeke ahead of Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell? Surely, you can’t be serious? Oh, but I am, and don’t call me Shirley. Allow me to explain why.

Note: If you play in a PPR league, then touches take on a new meaning. I’d be inclined to add another parameter that scores how many catches they usually get. Taking that into account, players like Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson would move ahead of Elliott in my rankings.

Let’s take a look at each of these categories and rate the top projected RB’s from this year’s crop.

How many touches do they get?

For a player to be one of the top scoring fantasy running backs, they need a heavy workload. Typically, that means they play on a team where they are the clear no. 1 running back. Time-shares are fantasy killers (usually) and if they aren’t on an offense where they are getting a significant amount of touches, it’s going to be hard to lead the pack. Here are how they rate when it comes to touches:

It’s not surprising which players get a heavy workload of touches. CBS Sports helped me identify who was getting a lot of touches as this touch/game data came in handy:

Le’Veon Bell and Zeke are used substantially in their respective offenses. While David Johnson isn’t on here due to his 2017 injury, we all know how much the Arizona Cardinals use him. I’m also going to assume that the New York Giants didn’t draft Saquan Barkley no. 2 overall to make him a role player. He’ll see a lot of action.

I don’t think there is any doubt that Zeke is going to get a heavy workload in Dallas. Rod Smith isn’t going to be cutting in to his touches. The Cowboys will rely on Elliott early and often.

Fantasy Tip:

Alvin Kamara will get a boost of touches during the first four games of the season while Mark Ingram is out, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that he won’t get the same amount of opportunities as some of these other guys. Kamara is going to have to keep having ridiculous efficiency in order to stay with the fantasy production of these elite running backs.

It’s also worth noting that the deep fantasy draft class has slid the Chicago Bears Jordan Howard out of the top 10 in many rankings, he finished fifth in rushing attempts last year. He might not be as flashy as some of these other guys, but if you’re looking for a volume guy, Howard should be a safe pick.

How much are they involved in the red zone?

Isn’t it great when your running back’s team has this huge receiving play that gives them the ball down near the goal line. We all know what that means as we’re about to steal an easy six points. Of course that feeling of excitement can quickly turn to aggravation when you see some other running back trot on the field and line up in the backfield. Or maybe they run a bootleg and then throw a pass for a touchdown to some uncontested tight end that we’ve never even heard of before. That sucks.

Whether it be from a touchdown-stealing goal line back or a talented red zone receiving target, some running backs are susceptible to getting touchdowns taken by other guys. It’s not enough to get a lot of touches, you want your running back to get the “right-kind-of” touches. Taking a look at some red zone rushing stats (courtesy of Pro Football Reference), we get a real good feel of who gets their number called deep in their opponents territory.

The presence of Jonathan Stewart joining the Giants would make me a little nervous if I’m a Barkley owner. Stewart was one of the top RB’s in terms of rushing attempts inside the five-yard line. I was a surprised to see Kareem Hunt’s red zone attempts as low as they were, but then when I checked red zone receiving targets and saw how high Travis Kelce was, it started to make sense.

Despite missing six games from serving his suspension, Zeke finished in sixth place for rushing attempts inside the 20. Prorate that over 16 games, and Elliott finishes ahead of everybody. And when you factor in that two of the Cowboys top red zone targets from previous years (Dez Bryant and Jason Witten) are no longer on the team, the opportunities for Zeke to score touchdowns are even greater.

How good is their offense?

Not only do you want your RB to get a heavy workload and be the goal line guy, but it’s a nice bonus if they are part of a great offense. There are several players in this league who meet the first two requirements, but then they’ll end up playing for the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets and their fantasy value plummets. Conversely, a high octane offense like the New Orleans Saints can help make two running backs fantasy relevant.

The Jacksonville Jaguars’ identity is their defense and they are middle of the road when it comes to red zone attempts per game so Leonard Fournette falls out of the elite group.

I had to go back to 2016 stats when a healthy David Johnson was on the field, but even still - the Arizona Cardinals were still just a middle-of-the-pack offense. This bumps him from the elite group as well.

Now, you may be curious as to whether or not the Cowboys are a “good” offense, but it should be noted that they were third in the league in red zone attempts per game when Elliott’s suspension took effect.

Are they consistent enough to trust their performance?

Every year the previous season’s top fantasy running back is over-drafted. It’s recency bias at it’s best. Everyone wants the next big thing, except the only problem is - they’re a year too late. Instead of going after last year’s star, it would be better to grab a player who has a good history of performance. You don’t want to get a one-hit wonder, only to have him disappear on your team.

Todd Gurley had a great rookie season when he rushed for 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns. That caused him to go high in the draft the following season, only to disappoint when his numbers dropped to 885 yards and six touchdowns. Needless to say, his decline in production allowed his fantasy owners to get quite the bargain last season. He rebounded nicely with 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns and as you might expect - he’s high on everyone’s list again.

Gurley’s back and forth production isn’t something I would worry too much about. This up year/down year pattern isn’t something that we can just assume is going to continue. But this little dip in consistency is enough to bump him from the elite tier based on this scoring matrix.

Even though Zeke missed six games last season, he still has more rushing yards than anyone else in the NFL since he came in the league in 2016. He started out great, he’s continued to be great, and there is no reason to expect him to be anything less than great going forward.

Can they stay healthy?

You never know when a fluke injury will rear it’s ugly head and in some cases - it’s just bad luck. But there are some players who always seem to find themselves on the injury report. While it’s hard to predict when injuries will happen, having a good record of health is always a positive thing.

Le’Veon Bell is flat-out outstanding when he’s on the field, but he has dealt with two different injuries that have forced him to miss games. He sat out the first three games of his rookie season when a foot-sprain sidelined him. Then, in 2016, he missed 10 games after suffering a season-ending torn MCL.

Running back is an brutal position, but Elliott has a lot of good things going for him to help preserve his health. He’s got a thick frame to absorb the pounding. He’s got a low center of gravity and doesn’t run with an upright running style that makes him a big target. And Zeke is just a tough guy. He doesn’t miss football games.

Three of the guys listed in this top 10 went out last year with season ending injuries. Now, there is nothing that says Zeke is impervious to something fluky, but so far you have to like his chances to stay on the field.

So, what’s the finally tally?

There are a lot of good running backs that you should be able to feel good about drafting, but Elliott is definitely at the top of the list. He checks off all the boxes from what you want in a fantasy running back. Draft him with confidence and watch the Cowboys feed him!