Wildcard Weekend Fantasy RB Breakdown: Get Ready for Peak Ezekiel Elliott
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott (21).
The regular season is over, but that’s no reason to stop playing daily fantasy football. Wildcard weekend brings a wonderful four-game slate that kicks off on Saturday at 4:35 p.m. ET.
In this positional breakdown, I’m looking at two running backs at the top of the individual Pro Models that Jonathan Bales, Peter Jennings (CSURAM88), Adam Levitan, Sean Koerner, Chris Raybon, Kevin McClelland (SportsGeek) and I have constructed.
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Model Running Backs
In the FantasyLabs Pro Models, there is one back who clearly stands above the rest: It’s Zeke week.
- Ezekiel Elliott: $9,000 DraftKings; $8,800 FanDuel
Ezekiel Elliott: Dallas Cowboys (-2.0) vs. Seattle Seahawks, 43.5 Over/Under
UPDATE (1/5): Left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo (ankle) is officially doubtful and expected not to play.
The Cowboys opened as -2.5 favorites, and the game opened at 41.5 points, but both lines have moved. As noted by P.J. Walsh, sharps hit the over early in the week, and then they invested in the Seahawks. On the Wednesday edition of The Favorites podcast, bookmaker Bob Scucci picked the Seahawks in “Scooch Roulette.”
None of this bodes particularly well for the Cowboys and Elliott.
But according to The Action Network NFL Power Rankings, the sharps might be wrong to back the Seahawks: Our numbers suggest that the Cowboys should be favored and will be undervalued if/when the line moves any lower.
On top of that, Zeke has the highest median, ceiling and floor projections in our Models. As CSURAM88, Koerner and Ian Hartitz detailed on the Wednesday edition of The Action Network NFL Podcast, Elliott is a strong play in cash games. In guaranteed prize pools, Zeke has been one of the most rostered players this year, and we expect him to have the highest ownership rate of wildcard weekend.
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 (21.6) and Saquon Barkley (21.3) have averaged more FanDuel points per game than Zeke’s 19.3.
Of all running backs, Zeke led the position with his 97.5% snap rate, 26.6 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game and 43.7% opportunity market share (per the RotoViz Player Usage App). Zeke basically is the Cowboys offense: He’s one of just 13 NFL backs with at least 1,000 touches in his first three seasons.
Even though Zeke sat out Week 17, he led the league this season with 381 touches and was a close second to Saquon with 2,001 scrimmage yards. Not once this season has Zeke failed 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.
Although Zeke has been a force for most of the season, his campaign really took off once wide receiver Amari Cooper joined the Cowboys in the Week 8 bye. Zeke has seen a significant increase in overall per-game production with Cooper.
- With Cooper (eight games): 22.1 FanDuel points, 75.0% Consistency Rating, 21.5 carries, 7.4 targets, 6.5 receptions, 150.9 and 0.63 touchdowns from scrimmage
- Without Cooper (seven games): 16.3 FanDuel points, 57.1% Consistency Rating, 18.9 carries, 5.1 targets, 3.6 receptions, 113.4 and 0.57 touchdowns from scrimmage
Although he’s expensive, Zeke has provided an abundance of value since November with his +6.82 Plus/Minus.
It’s unsurprising that Zeke and the Cowboys have been better since Cooper joined the team. Without him, they were 3-4. With him, they have gone 7-2 and won the NFC East.
But we shouldn’t overstate the impact Cooper has had on the offense. Even though the Cowboys are accumulating more yards per game with him, they are by no means radically better at converting yards into points (per the RotoViz Team Splits App).
- With Cooper (Weeks 8-17): 274.1 yards passing, 111.8 yards rushing, 22.1 points per game, 1.98 points per drive
- Without Cooper (Weeks 1-7): 202.4 yards passing, 136.9 yards rushing, 20 points per game, 1.86 points per drive
It’s not as if the Cowboys have been significantly better or even that good of a team with Cooper.
The Cowboys are 7-2 with Amari Cooper.
They’ve also been outscored 201-199 since he joined the team.
— Matthew Freedman (@MattFtheOracle) January 3, 2019
The Cowboys look like a team destined for some rude postseason regression. And I say that as a self-loathing Cowboys fan.
On paper, Zeke has a decent matchup against the Seahawks, who rank 17th against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. Elliott put up 138 yards against them in a 24-13 Week 3 loss. For the season, the Seahawks have allowed a middle-of-the-road 21.9 FanDuel points per game to opposing backfields.
But the Seahawks have noticeably struggled against running backs in the second half of the season (since Week 10).
- Todd Gurley (Rams, Week 10): 23.5 FanDuel points, 16-120-1 rushing, 3-40-0 on four targets
- Aaron Jones (Packers, Week 11): 24.8 FanDuel points, 11-40-1 rushing, 5-63-1 on six targets
- Christian McCaffrey (Panthers, Week 12): 41.2 FanDuel points, 17-125-1 rushing, 11-112-1 on 11 targets
- Matt Breida & Jeff Wilson (49ers, Week 13): 22.6 FanDuel points, 20-67-0 rushing, 11-124-0 on 12 targets
- Dalvin Cook (Vikings, Week 14): 16.8 FanDuel points, 13-55-0 rushing, 5-28-1 on seven targets
- Matt Breida & Jeff Wilson (49ers, Week 15): 14.7 FanDuel points, 24-96-0 rushing, 5-46-0 on six targets
- Damien Williams (Chiefs, Week 16): 21.5 FanDuel points, 13-103-0 rushing, 7-37-1 on seven targets
- David Johnson (Cardinals, Week 17): 10.3 FanDuel points, 17-62-0 rushing, 3-6-0 on four targets
Given how backs have recently done against the Seahawks, Zeke is in a good spot.
But the Seahawks were without longtime linebacker K.J. Wright (knee) for five of their past eight games. He’s now healthy and back. Playing alongside Bobby Wagner (91.9 Pro Football Focus grade), Wright is half of the league’s most-feared off-ball linebacking duo.
And the Cowboys are having issues along their offensive line. Left guard Xavier Su’a Filo (ankle) exited the team’s meaningless Week 17 game with an injury and is officially doubtful to play after missing practice all week. Filling in for Su’a Filo will be the rookie Connor Williams, whom Su’a Filo replaced in Week 11 after the second-rounder’s early-season struggles became too much for the team to bear.
On the interior, Williams will have to face nose tackle Poona Ford, who has really emerged for the Seahawks since Week 13. Even though he’s an undrafted rookie, Ford has been incredibly strong with a 90.3 PFF run-defense grade, and in each of the past three weeks Ford has played at least 25 snaps.
Next to Williams is Joe Looney, who has earned a 53.7 PFF grade while filling in this year for All-Pro center Travis Frederick (illness, IR). Facing two subpar backups, the run-stuffing Ford could prove to be a significant hindrance to Zeke and the Cowboys rushing attack.
On the plus side, the Cowboys are in Dallas, and they have been significantly better at home this year than on the road.
- At home: +6.5 point differential, 25 points per game, 2.28 points per drive
- On road: -4.6 point differential, 17.4 points per game, 1.58 points per drive
And unlike half of the teams on the slate, they get to play indoors, which is massively beneficial during the winter. Over the past 15 years, domed games have a postseason over/under record of 28-9-0, good for a magnificent 49.8% return on investment (per Bet Labs). For comparison, outdoor postseason games are 53-70-4 with a -15.5% ROI.
It’s no wonder that sharp bettors quickly invested in the over.
But the Cowboys and Seahawks both play at a slow pace, and in the previous six games that head coaches Jason Garrett and Pete Carroll have met, the under has hit five times.
With quarterback Dak Prescott, the Cowboys have a 19-29 over/under record. Including the postseason, the Cowboys are 17-32-1 against the spread in the Garrett era as home favorites.
There are legitimate reasons to believe that not many points will be scored in this game and that the Cowboys will score fewer points than the Seahawks.
But even if the Cowboys find themselves in a tough game, Elliott’s increased receiving workload is likely to insulate him from a game script-based letdown. Each NFL season, Zeke has enhanced his value as a receiver on a per-game basis (per the RotoViz Screener).
- 2016: 2.7 targets, 2.1 receptions, 24.2 yards receiving, 4.0 receiving fantasy points expected
- 2017: 3.8 targets, 2.6 receptions, 24.9 yards receiving, 5.0 receiving fantasy points expected
- 2018: 6.3 targets, 5.1 receptions, 37.8 yards receiving, 9.7 receiving fantasy points expected
With 95 targets and 77 receptions, Zeke has team-high marks in both categories. Even if Zeke struggles on the ground and the Cowboys struggle overall, his receiving abilities make it highly likely that we’ll see something approaching peak Zeke this weekend.
I’ll probably look to bet the over on Elliott’s yardage prop on Saturday. To find the best bets in the props market, use our Player Props Tool, which is powered by our industry-leading projections. Since Week 1, the props with a bet quality of 10 have gone 225-106-12, good for a 66% win rate. Without question, you should supplement your DFS action with player props.
Elliott has position-high marks with a 98% Bargain Rating and 12 Pro Trends on FanDuel, where he’s the No. 1 running back in all our Pro Models.
Wildcard Weekend Positional Breakdowns
Be sure to read the other wildcard weekend positional breakdowns.
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