Last year, Cowboys fans hoped to see Ezekiel Elliott break the record for rushing yards in a rookie season. Though Zeke fell 177 yards short of that goal, his 1,631 yards still made for a fabulous debut and have set expectations high or 2017.
With talk from Cowboys coaches that Elliott should get the ball more in his second year, you have to wonder what other records he might be able to chase. We're going to look at four areas where Zeke is most likely to threaten: rushing yards, combined yards, touchdowns, and total touches.
Elliott would need to add 475 yards to last year's 1,631 to break the single-season record. Since 1984, Eric Dickerson's mark of 2,105 yards has been flirted with but remains atop the list. After the record has stood 32 NFL seasons, with the game changing over that time, is it reasonable to think that Elliott could have a shot at the record.
Obviously, all of our discussion today is based on the assumption Elliott plays in all 16 games. Last year, he only played in 15 due to sitting out of the Cowboys' meaningless Week 17 finale. That extra game would be an immediate boost of hopefully 100-150 yards to Zeke's rushing total; a big chunk of that 475 he needs to catch Dickerson.
Next, consider that Elliott got off to a slow start. His first game was easily his worst, getting just 51 yards on a 2.6 average against the New York Giants. Zeke never had less than 80 yards the rest of the year and more than doubled his production in the second meeting with the Giants.
it's a safe bet that Zeke's increased touches and experience will result in improved production. Let's say he gets 125 yards in that 16th game, cutting the margin down to just 350 yards to break Dickerson's record. If you divide that over the remaining 15 games, it's just 23.33 yards per game. If last year's average of 5.1 yards-per-carry holds, that's just 4-5 more carries each week.
Naturally, if Zeke's rushing yards go up then you have to wonder what that means for his total yardage. Last year Zeke had 363 receiving yards on 32 catches, which gave him a total of 1,994 yards from scrimmage. The record belongs to Chris Johnson, who had 2,509 combined yards in 2009.
We just discussed how Zeke could reasonably add 475 yards to his rushing total. That alone would bring him just 41 yards away from Johnson's record. Obviously, Zeke wouldn't need to do much more in the passing game to close the gap. He might even get that in a single catch.
What this shows is that even if Elliott can't break Dickerson's rushing record, his increased workload could easily give him a shot at having the most combined yards in NFL history. The 516 extra yards he needs to catch Johnson may come from more of a mix of carries and catches, putting one record out of reach but another very much in his range.
This is one spot where the change in NFL offenses could especially hurt Zeke. Elliott had 15 rushing touchdowns and one as a receiver last season. The records for both rushing and combined touchdowns came from LaDainian Tomlinson's amazing 2006 season, where he had 31 total trips to the endzone (28 rushing, 3 receiving).
Zeke would need to double his touchdowns from last season to break Tomlinson's record. That's essentially two touchdowns in each game, which any fantasy player will tell you doesn't come often.
Despite having the offensive framework to punish teams with redzone rushing, the Cowboys like to use their receiving targets close to the goal line. Dez Bryant, Jason Witten, and Cole Beasley can all make plays in short yardage. Dak Prescott can also run it in himself, which further cuts into Elliott's opportunities.
it's certainly not impossible for Zeke to get two touchdowns a game. If he becomes more of an offensive focal point, as we discussed earlier, those extra touches should lead to more trips to the endzone. It would have to be a fairly dramatic shift, though, for him to double last year's numbers.
We end on this one because it could wind up having consequences. There is a price for increasing a player's workload; increased wear-and-tear and chances for injury that might impact the 2017 season or Elliott's long-term value.
Last year Zeke had 322 carries and 32 catches in 15 games. The record is an astonishing 492 total touches by RB James Wilder in 1984, playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Elliott would need 139 more touches in 2017 to break that record.
You may look at that number and think there's no way Zeke could get it, but break it down by each game. The margin is about 8.6 touches per week, which isn't that unreasonable for a player getting an increased workload.
Given the modern understanding of sports medicine and philosophies about resting players, I don't expect Elliott to touch Wilder's record. However, this clearly demonstrates that he wouldn't be too far off if he gets a significant increase in touches. While this may lead to all of the glorious achievements we've considered, it could also lead to future problems.
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Ezekiel Elliott has as good an opportunity to put his name in the record books as any NFL running back has had. Hopefully, improved production will come more from getting better yardage on each touch than having to get more touches. This will not only be better for his long-term health but result in more efficiency and excitement from the Cowboys offense.