Ezekiel Elliott has seen a steady decline in his production over the past two seasons, but he could be primed for a bounce-back in 2021.
Entering the league in 2016, Elliott electrified the Cowboys offense averaging 5.07 yards per carry. There was no question that Elliott was the engine that made the Dallas offense go, and his production resulted in not only the Offensive Rookie of the Year distinction but a 13-3 record for the Cowboys that locked up the top seed in the NFC.
In year two, however, a lengthy battle with Roger Goodell and the league office ultimately resulted in a six-game suspension for Elliott. The battle raged well into the season and served as a distraction. The result was Zeke’s yards per carry dropping more than a full yard to 4.06. Given the circumstances, it’s fair to call 2017 an outlier, especially when you consider that his yards per attempt shot back up to 4.72 the following season. The problem for Elliott and Dallas is that in each of the past two seasons his yards per carry average dipped further, eventually falling below league average in 2020.
While Dallas’ 9-7 campaign in 2019 still saw solid production from Elliott (4.51 YPC), it wasn’t enough to translate to a second consecutive postseason appearance. Then, in 2020, his production suffered greatly behind a decimated offensive line. Without Tyron Smith, La’el Collins, and even Zack Martin following a 41-16 Thanksgiving Day thrashing, Elliott could do little to aid the staggering Dallas offense that was already without Dak Prescott. The result was a career-low 4.01 yards per carry for Zeke.
Not great. So why should we anticipate a bounce back in Elliott’s sixth season?
Going back to 1990, running backs entering their sixth season with at least 100 rushing attempts have seen a rise in their yards per carry. It’s not a huge rise, mind you, but Elliott’s data, in comparison to all other qualified backs, skews more wildly anyway. Simply put, his highs are significantly higher while his lows are only slightly worse.
When further considering Zeke’s two worst seasons faced extenuating circumstances in his suspension and then the utter decimation of the offensive line, it’s fair to project a season more in line with 2018 and 2019.
Elliott’s production has been a hotly debated topic in Dallas, with critics pointing to not only the drop in his yards per carry but the disappearance of the “home run threat” he presented as a rookie. To be fair, Elliott has struggled to make defenders miss and break tackles in recent seasons, and the breakaway speed he famously flashed at Pittsburgh as a rookie hasn’t been seen in subsequent years. But even if he can’t live up to the game-breaking standards that garnered him MVP consideration as a rookie, there’s no reason to believe Elliott can’t still help control games with punishing runs while averaging comfortably over the league average in his yards per attempt, as seen in 2018 and ‘19.
The fact that Dak Prescott is coming back from a major injury and has seen limited action throughout training camp due to a latissimus strain in his throwing shoulder, makes it even more likely Elliott sees an increase in his usage over the first few weeks of the season as Prescott looks to shake off nearly a calendar year’s worth of rust. This could help establish balance in the offensive play-calling and get Elliott rolling early in the year.
Zeke worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to improve his speed and lower his playing weight in anticipation of a bounce-back year. The numbers seem to be on his side, but the onus is on Elliott to deliver.