Now that the NFL Draft has come and gone, it's preseason for Fantasy Footballers the world over. All the rookies have found new homes. We're looking forward to the offseason activities and training camp to see how the depth charts shake out with the new additions. The fantasy football value of several players remained unaffected by the NFL Draft, and that is the three-headed running back monster that sits somewhere in the top-five of everyone's rankings.
It doesn't matter if it's re-draft, keeper, or dynasty league; Ezekiel Elliott, Le'Veon Bell, and David Johnson all sit inside the top-five. So the questions must be asked.
Who is the top running back heading into 2017?
There are a lot of opinions out there, and to be honest, I can see a case being made for all three, but let's take a look at their stats for comparison.
Statistical Overview [Elliott, Bell, Johnson]
A few Notes from the Table
- From the table above we can see that Bell played fewer games than Johnson and Elliott due to a four game suspension at the beginning of the season. His numbers in 12 games were downright ridiculous. At a 16-game pace that would turn into: 1,690 yards rushing, nine rushing TDs, 100 catches, 821 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns.
- Bell would have easily eclipsed Johnson's total yard numbers for the season.
- Johnson still would have led the three in touchdowns.
- Elliott's lack of targets in the passing game kept him from leading the league in total yards. Elliott was only 124 total yards behind Johnson despite 81 fewer targets and playing one less game.
Looking at the stats above it's easy to see that their respective teams really worked their workhorse running backs in 2016.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Le'Veon Bell's touch rate over a 16-game season would have put him at 448 touches. For reference, in DeMarco Murray's stellar 2014 campaign with the Dallas Cowboys, he touched the ball 449 times. That's a lot of work.
Bell would have led the league in total yards if playing at that pace over a 16 game season.
He's still a young player in the league at age 25 this season. Bell is part of one of the most dynamic offenses in the NFL that is able to throw the ball and run the ball at will against opponents.
His vision, shiftiness in the hole, and ability to break big runs makes him one of the best running backs in the game.
Suspensions and injuries have limited his career impact though, and fantasy owners hope they can finally get a 16-game season from him. 2014 was the only time that he played 16 games in his career.
If you draft him with a top-five pick, you will be happy with your return. He is a RB1 and will deliver RB1 numbers.
He does, however, come with some risk.
His four game suspension in 2016 was his fourth offense, according to the NFL's drug policy. You can read a synopsis of it here from SB Nation. A fifth offense would lead to a 10 game suspension, effectively killing his fantasy value.
The Pittsburgh Steelers did invest in a running back during the 2017 NFL Draft.
University of Pittsburgh running back James Conner was selected in the third round of this year's draft. That is quite an investment in a player that is going to be a backup, unless the team plans on using him.
While Bell is still likely to put up RB1 numbers, I wouldn't plan on him seeing 400 touches in 2017.
David Johnson, RB, Arizona Cardinals
David Johnson was 2016's most hotly debated player. And this fantasy analyst fell on the wrong side of that one. I didn't think that we had seen enough from Johnson at the tail end of 2015 to warrant him being a top selection in fantasy drafts.
I guess the bulletin board material I provided really motivated him, because he had an amazing season.
The thing you like about Johnson is his ability to run and catch the ball with a high amount of efficiency. His 4.2 yard per carry number isn't great, but he also plays in a division that has really good defensive fronts in the Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks. When you have to face those guys twice a year, it's going to be tough sledding.
Where he excels is as a pass catching running back. Targeted 120 times, which ranked him 25th amongst all players in the NFL, his 80 catches were the 20th most in 2016 rankings, ahead of 2015 standouts like Allen Robinson and DeAndre Hopkins.
Johnson was able to find the endzone 20 times last year, and that is a huge number in this day and age of committee running backs and pass first offenses.
Arizona was forced to go to him because their offensive line couldn't hold up in pass protection. Quarterback Carson Palmer was sacked 40 times in 2016, only two less than Tyrod Taylor, who was sacked the most. For reference, Dak Prescott was only sacked 25 times last year. That ranked for 8th fewest among quarterbacks with more than 400 pass attempts.
They couldn't find any consistency at the wide receiver position outside of Larry Fitzgerald, who had another ho-hum 100 catch season. Aside from Fitzgerald, and Johnson's 80 catches, the next most on the team was 39 by WR John Brown, who was battling back from injuries for most of 2016.
All that to say that I don't think Johnson replicates his 120 targets in 2017. Especially if you believe that the Cardinals are going to move former starting running back Andre Ellington to WR. He provides another short to intermediate passing game target for the Cardinals, that will likely eat into Johnson's passing game numbers.
He's another player worthy of the number one overall pick, but I have my concerns that his workload is going to decrease, and therefore I think his numbers will decrease.
Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
This brings me to my choice for the number one running back off the board and the number one overall player. Ezekiel Elliott.
You can call this a homer pick if you like. You can talk about all the blue Kool-Aid I'm drinking and you'd be right. I'm a homer and I drink the Kool-Aid.
But before you write this off as a homer pick, let me give you some rationale.
First, let's dispel the notion that Ezekiel Elliott is a product of the offensive line. Yes, his offensive line is great, but Elliott was great as well. He rushed for nearly 1,000 yards after contact last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
The offensive line, though it lost a couple of pieces in Doug Free and Ronald Leary, looks to have players capable of providing a similar level of play in La'el Collins (whether at LG or RT, he'll be a beast in the run game), and a trio of tackles that show promise in Chaz Green, Emmett Cleary, and Byron Bell.
In 2016, Ezekiel Elliott typically only came off the field for a series in the first half and a series in the second half, after a long run, or during a long series for a play or two. Otherwise, he was on the field in all situations because of his ability as a receiver (only one drop on 37 targets) and his ability in pass protection, which was elite already coming out of college.
Elliott -- to me -- has the clearest path to recreating his touch totals as he is the focal point for the Dallas Cowboys offense. His touches weren't reliant on a passing game scheming him the ball. He was the only running back to carry the ball more than 300 times in 2016, and if the Cowboys staff continues the trend, he will do so again this coming season.
Once Jason Garrett finds a bell cow running back, they feed them the ball. Like DeMarco Murray in 2014, Darren McFadden in 2015 and now Elliott, 300 carries is nearly a given. I also expect to see them utilize him in the passing game more this season as he was very effective in that role and his toughness and tackle breaking ability give Dak Prescott another underneath option to drive the field with.
As mentioned above, Elliott was only 124 total yards behind David Johnson while playing one less game and having 81 fewer passing game targets.
Because I see Elliott's season as the most likely to be reproduced in 2017, plus his passing game share to likely increase, and the touch numbers for Johnson and Bell to decrease, Elliott is my number one overall player in standard, PPR, re-draft, and dynasty leagues this season.
Who is number one for you and why? Let us know in the comment section.
Is Dak Prescott a Player to Avoid in Fantasy Football in 2018?
For the Dallas Cowboys, the plan is to stick with Dak Prescott to hopefully turn him into a successful long-term franchise quarterback. Going into his third year in the league, this could be a season that defines his future on America's Team.
However, after the entire team struggled in 2017 while trying to overcome several key absences (including Ezekiel Elliott and Tyron Smith), Prescott's level of play has been questioned by plenty around the league. Fans, analysts and writers everywhere aren't as sure as they were in 2016 about the quarterback's future.
And now, according to NFL.com, Fantasy Football players should beware of drafting Dak Prescott once their "friendly" (we all know they're anything but friendly) seasons begin.
Earlier this week, NFL.com Fantasy Editor Marcas Grant published an article telling us ten players to avoid for the 2018 Fantasy Football season. Perhaps it may come as a surprise to some that Dak Prescott is in there among names like Ty Montgomery and Jack Doyle. You can read his full article here.
To be honest, I see his point here.
It's more than fair to say that it's not going to be an easy year for Dak. He's got to prove a lot in a year that could have a juicy extension at the end of it. After going through a sort of an expected sophomore slump, Prescott's third year in the NFL should be his best one yet.
There's a big but, though. Dez Bryant and Jason Witten are long gone, leaving Dak Prescott with a promising yet unproven set of pass catchers.
Will a dominant running game led by five great offensive linemen and Ezekiel Elliott be enough to help Dak and the rest of the offense? Probably. but how much will Prescott be able to accomplish?
Through a painful 9-7 season in which the Cowboys never seemed to be able to find a steady pace, #4's stats took a hit. Here are his numbers from his two years in the pros:
- 2016: 311 completions, 67.8% completion percentage, 3,667 yards, 23 TDs and 4 INTs.
- 2017: 308 completions, 62.9% completion percentage, 3,324 yards, 22 TDs and 13 INTs.
- He also ran for six touchdowns in each of his two seasons.
Per FantasyData.com, his fantasy points dropped from 286.88 in 2016 to 260.66 in 2017.
Despite his numbers dropping, Dak certainly took huge strides as a passer. From taking command of the offense as a captain to making throws he wouldn't make as a rookie, Prescott was able to demonstrate improvements during a rough sophomore slump.
Even with Dez gone, the receivers the front office brought in throughout the offseason are expected to be Dak-friendly. If the receiving corps actually make his strengths shine, the Cowboys' offense will take a huge step in 2018.
Maybe, as Jason Witten mentioned on Adam Schefter's Podcast, Dez is as good as anyone going up for the football. But that's not what will make Dak shine. This revamped WR room might be just what he needs, though.
At the end of the day, even though I truly believe he'll have a good career in the NFL and that he's the future of the Dallas Cowboys, I doubt he should be marked as an early target in the Fantasy Football world.
As of right now, from a Fantasy Football perspective, I would barely rank him as a Top 15 quarterback for many reasons.
First of all, the Cowboys' game will revolve around Ezekiel Elliott. Secondly, it doesn't matter how much faith we put into these pass catchers, they haven't proved anything yet.
Dak is not a bad player at all. But taking Prescott in the middle or even late rounds of a Fantasy Draft might be the safest way to go right now.
Lastly, I leave you with some "Fantasy Nuggets" from fellow Inside The Star writer and Fantasy Football Guru John Williams:
- Dak failed to score 10 standard format fantasy points only four times last season. He scored 15+ points nine times and 20+ six times in 2017.
- In 2017 - even with a down second half - he finished as the 13th best QB in points per game and as the tenth best in total QB scoring.
- In 2016, he was in the top 10 in both categories mentioned in the previous bullet point.
- His ability to run and score touchdowns on the ground easily make him one of the best 12 QB options for fantasy football.
Fantasy Football Implications of Ezekiel Elliott’s Suspension
Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended by the NFL for 6 games for violating the league's Personal Conduct Policy. This will leave a void in the backfield for the Dallas Cowboys and on many fantasy football rosters around the world. As it is with the real league, it's a next man up philosophy in the world of fantasy football as well.
At the moment, that next man up is Darren McFadden.
Just two years ago, with Dallas still clinging to playoff hopes in the wake of Tony Romo's injury, McFadden rushed for more than 1,000 yards. He finished fifth in the NFL that season despite not seeing more than 10 carries a game until week six. From week 6 until the end of the season, McFadden had 7 games with more than 90 yards rushing.
McFadden's touchdown total from that season leaves a lot to be desired, but let's not forget the quarterbacking chaos that went on that season. Between Brandon Weeden, Matt Cassel, and Kellen Moore, defenses weren't worried about being beat in the passing game.
Frankly, it's a miracle that McFadden rushed for 1,000 yards.
Over 11 games from weeks 6-17, McFadden averaged 21.45 touches per game and 108.27 total yards per game. At that pace, stretched over a 16 game season, McFadden would have totaled 1,732 yards, which would have led all running backs in total yards that season.
If you still have to draft, I would take a chance on McFadden around the 7th or 8th round in 10 or 12 team drafts.
As for Alfred Morris, he will get some touches as much as the Dallas Cowboys will look to run the ball. That being said the second half of 2016 showed who the coaches preferred as the backup.
The last time Morris ran for more than 1,000 yards was in 2014. In 2015, if you'll remember, he lost his job to Matt Jones who has since lost his job to UDFA Rob Kelley, who is starting but is being threatened by 2017 draft pick Samaje Perine.
When Morris played last year he was pretty ineffective averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry.
With McFadden's injury history, you can take a shot on Alfred Morris late in your fantasy drafts around the second to last or the last round.
How Should You Value Ezekiel Elliott in Upcoming Fantasy Drafts?
That's a difficult question to answer, because a lot will depend on your league settings. My simple answer is, if you can get any discount on Ezekiel Elliott from his average draft position of 3.0, then you're getting a good value for at least the second half of the season.
Just a week ago I wrote to not allow this absence to sway you too much. I stand by that.
Fantasy football is about getting as much value as you can with each draft pick. Elliott is a top 5 value in any setting, even if he has to sit out. I think you can comprise a roster good enough to get into the playoffs, then you'll want Elliott for a playoff run.
Just like the Dallas Cowboys, all you need to do is tread water while he's out. If you can make it through the suspension at or around .500, you will still be in good position to win your fantasy football league.
When Elliott comes back, he will be the starter.
Even if they make him earn it, it won't take long. He's just better than McFadden and Morris. If your league lets Elliott somehow slip outside of the first round, snatch him up and make sure you draft McFadden. You'll thank me for it later.
While many will look at this situation as a detriment to Dak Prescott and may feel deterred from drafting him as the 9th quarterback in your league, I actually see it the opposite. While Dak was very efficient in Dallas' run-first offense, he showed throughout the 2016 season that he could be leaned upon in a shootout or to bring the team back from a large deficit.
In fact, Dak might have played his best game of the season during the playoff loss to Green Bay when the team got down 21-3. Forced to pass, Prescott completed 63% of his passes for 302 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in nearly leading the team back to victory.
With a full offseason in the Dallas offense and a really good compliment of receivers led by Dez Bryant, I fully anticipate Dak to have an excellent sophomore campaign.
Dallas may lean more on the pass during Elliott's absence, which will make Dak more valuable to me. Remember fantasy football is about acquiring stats and with Elliott out, Dak will have a great chance at putting up even bigger numbers. Especially if the run game is ineffective.
Fantasy Football: Draft Ezekiel Elliott Early, Don’t Be Swayed
Plenty of fantasy football drafts have come and gone, but many still remain as training camp is in full swing. The question has come up in the fantasy football Twitter community; what do you do with Ezekiel Elliott amidst rumors of a suspension? And the short answer is nothing.
Investigations into whether or not Ezekiel Elliott has violated any of the NFL's policies have persisted. Supposedly, those investigations have come to a close. The personal conduct policy, the domestic violence policy, and the substance abuse policy seem to all be in play as the league decides on the appropriate punishment for the Dallas Cowboys' star running back.
You could go the safe route and drop Ezekiel Elliott down your draft boards or you could take a chance at having one of the top scorers in fantasy football on your roster.
Say a suspension does come down. At worst, a drug suspension would be four games.
The domestic violence issue seems to be circumstantial evidence that even the Columbus Police and District Attorney declined to pursue. The NFL's personal conduct policy could apply, but that seems to be more of a threat than anything. So the question is, if Elliott is out for four games, does he lose his value somehow. I'd say no.
We don't have to go back very far to see a similar star running back with a similar suspension. In 2016, Le'Veon Bell was suspended for the first three games of the season and many people slid him down their draft boards. In some mocks, I saw him going outside of the first round.
Sure he missed the first three games of the season, but he finished as fantasy football's No. 3 running back and was there when you needed him most. Playoff time.
Bell only had three games where he failed to score less than 15 standard fantasy points during his 12 game season (didn't play in the season finale). The point being, anyone who drafted Le'Veon Bell in the first round or the top of the second was quite happy with the results.
If Ezekiel Elliott misses time, it will be at the beginning of the season, but like Bell, he will be around at the end of the season when you're trying to put away a championship win.
If you're drafting at the top of the first round, don't let Ezekiel Elliott's consistency and scoring ability get by you because of a threat of suspension. He'll be available to you when you need him most.
The first few weeks of the season are tough matchups for Elliott anyway.
Dallas will face the New York Giants, Denver Broncos, Arizona Cardinals, and Los Angeles Rams in the first four weeks--all teams with tough defenses. Though Elliott is a guaranteed starter for those four weeks, it's likely you're lowering expectations for him against some of the top run defenses in the NFL.
For me in 2017, the reward of having Ezekiel Elliott on my roster far outweighs the risk of any potential suspension. Draft Zeke and reap the benefits.
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