Ezekiel Elliott is a great running back, case closed. Two out of the three years he’s played thus far, Zeke has led the league in rushing and likely would have done so in 2017 if not for his suspension; in fact, his final 2017 figures extrapolated to a 16-game season would have put him in the lead by 200 yards.
It’s clear that Elliott was one of the best pure running backs in the league through his first three years, but some pointed out his heavy volume of carries in addition to his low usage rate in the passing game. While the latter changed dramatically in 2018, as Zeke had more receptions than his first two years combined, there was still an argument to be made that the Cowboys weren’t using him in the most efficient way possible.
One great way to look at this is through two different metrics that measure value, DVOA and DYAR. DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) for an individual player represents the value per play that the player brings to the table, while DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) bases its player value off of the player’s total touches compared to the average level of their replacement to give an idea of how valuable the player is on a whole.
Looking back in time at these two metrics for Zeke, he ranked first in the league in DYAR in 2016 but was sixth in DVOA, meaning that he wasn’t giving the most value per play but was the most valuable running back, largely due to the volume of carries he had that year. In 2017, Zeke’s suspension-shortened year, he was seventh in DYAR and eighth in DVOA, two big dips in value for the star running back. It’s important to note that both of these metrics account for disparities in games played, so Zeke only playing ten games didn’t really factor into his low scores.
While 2018 saw Elliott again lead the league in rushing and enjoy a sharp increase in receptions, his overall value dropped farther. Zeke ranked ninth in DYAR and fell to 20th in DVOA, a jaw-dropping decline. This was a microcosm of one of the main criticisms of the previous offensive coordinator: rather than using Elliott’s diverse skill set to create unique matchups, Elliott was simply given the ball and told to run behind the offensive line. And if we do a little more analysis, we can see that Dallas last year was heavily dependent on their offensive line to create space for Elliott to run, as they ranked third in the league in adjusted line yards but 21st in open field yards. In short, Zeke’s full range of skills weren’t being utilized, which led to some very low rankings in DVOA and DYAR.
But the 2019 season is very different with Kellen Moore running the show. Elliott has 602 yards through seven games, has 24 receptions for 176 yards, and has run in for six touchdowns already, all while posting his lowest amount of attempts per game in his career. Currently, Zeke is on pace to finish with 1,376 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 402 receiving yards on 54 catches. While that might not be enough to win the rushing title a third time in four years (he currently ranks seventh), the metrics tell us that Moore has been getting the most out of Zeke.
Elliott currently ranks second in both DYAR and DVOA, behind only Vikings running back Dalvin Cook and one spot ahead of Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, who many have thrust into the MVP conversation this year. There’s one other metric to look at here, which is effective yards. Essentially, this metric boils DVOA down to a yards per attempt figure, and the rule of thumb is if a player’s effective yards are higher than his actual yards, he’s performing better than the raw numbers indicate. Well, Elliott has a +196 difference, the highest differential of any qualifying running back this year. In short, Elliott is playing much better than his 602 rushing yards indicate.
A lot of this has to do with the job Moore has done in calling plays on offense. His proclivity to (sometimes) throw the ball on first down has created more uncertainty among defenses, which has put Zeke in more favorable running situations. Additionally, the variance in formations and pre-snap motion has stretched out defenses more, creating more space for Elliott to run. Of course, it also helps that Dak Prescott is playing at an MVP-caliber level this year, so defenses can’t afford to stack the box as often.
None of this diminishes the inherent talent that made Elliott the fourth overall draft pick in 2016, and it’s certainly easy to see why Jerry and Stephen Jones handed him that huge contract right before the season’s start. But it’s very clear that Moore’s offense (which, for the record, ranks first in the league in total offensive DVOA) has put Zeke in a position to succeed like never before. Dallas is certainly getting their money’s worth.