Freedman: What to Do With Ezekiel Elliott in Fantasy for Week 1

Freedman: What to Do With Ezekiel Elliott in Fantasy for Week 1 article feature image
Credit:

Photo credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Ezekiel Elliott

  • Ezekiel Elliott is back with the Cowboys, but there are reports he could have a reduced workload in Week 1. Below, Matthew Freedman discusses what to do with him in season-long and DFS leagues.

Ezekiel Elliott has signed a six-year, $90 million contract extension with the Cowboys and is fully expected to play in Week 1.

But there are reports that the Cowboys are planning to use Zeke for “about 20-25 reps” (per NFL Network’s Jane Slater), which is a far cry from the 59.3 snaps per game he played last year.

So what are fantasy players to do with Zeke in Week 1, especially in daily fantasy?

Ezekiel Elliott in Season-Long Leagues for Week 1

If you have Zeke in season-long leagues, you’re playing him. That’s all there is to it. He might disappoint you, because there’s a real chance that he could have a reduced workload.

But Zeke is a top-six back in our Week 1 rankings. Unless you somehow happen to have Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Alvin Kamara on your team, you’re starting Zeke and just hoping that he doesn’t lose a lot of touches to someone else.

Ezekiel Elliott in DFS for Week 1

  • DraftKings: $9,200
  • FanDuel: $9,100

On the Week 1 NFL Fantasy Flex, we discuss how to approach Zeke for daily fantasy.

I will probably die believing that the Cowboys shouldn’t have drafted Elliott No. 4 overall in the 2016 draft, but as a fantasy producer, he’s elite. Since he entered the league in 2016, only Le’Veon Bell, Saquon Barkley and Todd Gurley have averaged more DraftKings points per game than Zeke’s 22.2 (including playoffs).

In each of the past three seasons, Zeke has led the NFL in rushing yards per game (108.7, 98.3 and 95.6), and last year he was No. 1 with 26.6 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game. Zeke is the Cowboys offense.

Even though he sat out Week 17, Zeke led the league in 2018 with 381 touches and was a close second to Saquon with 2,001 scrimmage yards. Not once last year did Zeke fail to get 18 touches in a game. Since his rookie campaign, Zeke is the only back to average more than 100 yards rushing per game with his mark of 101.2. In fact, Elliott is second all time with his per-game rushing average, trailing only Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown, who has 104.3.

While Zeke was a solid producer for the first half of 2018, his campaign really took off once wide receiver Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys in the Week 8 bye.

  • With Cooper (10 games): 25.9 DraftKings points, 21.8 carries, 6.9 targets, 5.8 receptions, 144.2 yards and 0.70 touchdowns from scrimmage
  • Without Cooper (seven games): 19.5 DraftKings points, 18.9 carries, 5.1 targets, 3.6 receptions, 113.4 yards and 0.57 touchdowns from scrimmage

With a full season with Cooper, Zeke could be even more productive this year, especially since he’s likely to score more touchdowns. In his first two seasons, Zeke had a touchdown-per-opportunity rate of 3.9%. Last year, though, that number dipped to 2.3% as he put up just nine touchdowns on 399 opportunities and 2,001 yards.

Even if Zeke plays fewer snaps this year and gets fewer overall opportunities, he still has a good chance of scoring double-digit touchdowns.

Ezekiel Elliott Could Be Better in 2019 Than He Was in 2018

The offensive line should be better this year thanks to the return of All-Pro center Travis Frederick (Guillain-Barre Syndrome) and development of second-year left guard Connor Williams. Frederick missed all of last season, and Williams struggled to a 57.3 PFF grade. Frederick is reportedly healthy, and Williams has added weight this offseason in order to hold up on the interior.

With an improved offensive line, Zeke could have the best season of his career.

And here’s maybe the best fact about Zeke: He’s still developing as a receiver. Each NFL season, he has enhanced his pass-catching value on a per-game basis (including playoffs, per the RotoViz Screener).

  • 2016: 2.6 targets, 2.1 receptions, 22.6 yards receiving, 3.9 receiving fantasy points expected
  • 2017: 3.8 targets, 2.6 receptions, 24.9 yards receiving, 5.0 receiving fantasy points expected
  • 2018: 6.2 targets, 4.9 receptions, 36.4 yards receiving, 9.3 receiving fantasy points expected

In 2018, Zeke actually led the team with 95 targets and 77 receptions.

Week 1 Analysis for Ezekiel Elliott

For Week 1, Zeke is in a good spot: He’s a big home favorite, and last year the Giants allowed a top-eight mark of 27.9 DraftKings points per game to opposing backfields.

Of course, you should remember what Ned Stark taught his children: Everything before the word “but” is horse s—t.

But here’s the problem with Zeke: He hasn’t practiced with the team all offseason, he habitually shows up each season out of shape and he’s been in Cabo for much of the past month.

Additionally, this offseason the Cowboys added the explosive Tony Pollard via the draft, and although he was only a fourth-round selection, the organization has gotten above-average production out of each of the backs it has selected with comparable picks over the past 15 years.

  • Joseph Randle (2013): Round 5, Pick 151
  • DeMarco Murray (2011): Round 3, Pick 71
  • Tashard Choice (2008): Round 4, Pick 122
  • Marion Barber (2005): Round 4, Pick 109

Pollard had a highly efficient 1,010 scrimmage yards and 10 all-purpose touchdowns last year with Memphis, and in the preseason — in Zeke’s absence — he made an impact.

Add it all together and Zeke simply carries too much risk to start in cash games.

In a game the Cowboys should win, they might curtail Zeke’s playing time because of conditioning concerns, and with Pollard on the roster, they have a back capable of handling some of Zeke’s workload.

He could still have 18-plus touches for over 100 yards and a touchdown, but to have success in cash games you need to avoid players who bust, and Zeke has elevated bust potential in Week 1.

But Zeke is definitely in play for guaranteed prize pools. Right now, we’re projecting Zeke for less than 10% ownership, which makes him an intriguing high-end pivot play on McCaffrey and Barkley, both of whom will be among the most popular backs on the slate.

Even with a reduced workload, Zeke still has a 100-yard, two-touchdown game within his range of outcomes. In the FantasyLabs Models, he has a top-10 Leverage Score of 86%: At diminished ownership, Zeke offers a lot of tournament value.