2021 looks to be Ezekiel Elliott’s revenge tour. All offseason reports have stated he has looked slim, focused, and training with a purpose. One could assume that Elliott had heard the talk about his 2020 performance and how many have doubted his preparation, his focus, and his production on the field throughout last season. Elliott had six fumbles on the season in which five of those were lost, and both his total rushing yards (979), and average yards per carry (4.0), were the lowest of his career. As we look ahead to the 2021 season, there is no reason to think Elliott could not eclipse 1,100 rushing yards and there are many reasons to feel optimistic about Zeke and his potential return to prominence as a back the league fears.
Injuries plagued the 2020 Cowboys, and you simply can’t ignore the fact they had to play musical chairs on the offensive line all season which impacted the running game and the offense as a whole. Heading into the new year it looks to be all systems go for the offensive line as Tyron Smith and La’el Collins look locked and loaded for training camp. The same goes for Zack Martin who spent part of 2020 banged up and playing through injury. Having those three available and ready is vital to this teams success moving forward.
Understandably, fans and media alike see the hefty price tag associated with Elliott and expect production to match the financial burden. That expectation is not unwarranted, however losing your star quarterback in addition to the majority of your starting offensive line put the Cowboys run game, and Zeke specifically, in a bind. Seeing loaded boxes and lack of respect defenses showed to the quarterback under center, coupled with backup offensive linemen not generating push, made for tough sledding game in and game out. Getting Dak Prescott back will for defenses to have to respect the passing game and the plethora of weapons on the outside to his disposal, ensuring Zeke and the rest of the backs will see much more favorable running situations this season.
Football is also a mental game and you cannot just brush off the motivation that one might possess coming off a career-worst season. All minicamp reports state Zeke looks like a man on a mission and his play has really shined throughout the portions viewed by the media. Many state he looks thin, quick, and focused as he goes through these padless practices. All offseason long Zeke and his camp have been posting videos of his workouts and there is no question his drive and determination just looks and feels different this year.
On the other side of the coin, there is a chance for Zeke to underperform and once again we could be sitting at the end of the season wondering if Elliott’s best days are behind him.
We all know the life of a running back in the NFL is short-lived. The wear and tear the position takes day in and day out makes you wonder if Zeke can ever be the Zeke of old? Since entering the league, Elliott has been atop of his position as it pertains to carries and overall usage. Most of last year looked as if he had lost a step and left many wondering if his best was behind him.
As you discuss the running back position for the Cowboys you can’t forget Tony Pollard. The explosive backup to Elliott warrants his own touches and playing time, and in doing so it cuts into the amount of production Zeke may see going forward. Pollard brings a different element when he is in the game and forces the opposing defense to defend the position in a different way than they would do so for Elliott. Having Tony Pollard is a plus for the Cowboys and their offense, but for Elliott it may hinder his statistical output going forward.
The same problems from the prior season could also rear their ugly head once again, as the health of the offensive line is still a question mark until proven otherwise. There is also a chance that Dak heads into the season unsure of his surgically repaired ankle and doesn’t quite regain his pre-injury level of play. An unsure and somewhat timid Dak would surely affect the offense as a whole causing a side of the ball that is viewed by many as a top unit in the league, to have question marks going forward.
Another element that could hinder Ezekiel Elliott statistically could be his own head coach. Mike McCarthy is known for being a coach that likes to throw the ball around the yard. Many wondered if the hiring of McCarthy would affect Elliott moving forward. Situations dictated play-calls last season, just as they do every year, but you could definitely see the McCarthy fingerprint on the offense as the Cowboys threw the ball more so than any other year in recent memory. Dallas will need to find the balance and healthy mix between run and pass that can keep this team playing with and preserving leads to win football games.
There is a case to be made for both sides of the argument. On one hand Zeke looks hungry, motivated, and ready to regain his crown as a rushing champ, but on the other hand there are many factors that could go the other way that could hinder his performance, some of which he has no control of. As we draw closer to kickoff 2021, one could wonder just which Ezekiel Elliott we will see.
So what’s your call? Can Zeke hit 1,300 yards?