The Elliott Dilemma

I was sorry we ate an early Thanksgiving Day meal last Thursday because Ezekiel Elliott and the Dallas Cowboys made me sick to my stomach in their embarrassing loss to the Washington Redskins. No one can doubt that Jerry Jones is an outstanding businessman because he has made the Cowboys into the most valuable sports franchise in the world. But it’s clear that Jones doesn’t know much about professional football.

Exhibit A is the hiring of Mike McCarthy. McCarthy, who was fired by the Packers before the end of the 2018 season, was an old-school coach who was no longer effective. During his time in Green Bay, McCarthy was only able to win a single Super Bowl during Aaron Rodgers’ prime. That was in 2011. But the Packers were only 7-9 in 2017 and had slipped to 4-7-1 in 2018 before he was fired with four games left in the season.  

But Elliott also needs to shoulder much of the blame for the Cowboys’ disastrous season. I drafted Elliott despite my doubts three months ago. You may have done the same thing. After all, the pundits said he was the third-best player fantasy football player behind Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley. I seriously considered selecting Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, or even Derrick Henry instead of Elliott. I should have trusted my gut.     

Six running backs were drafted with the first seven picks in nearly every fantasy draft three months ago. They were McCaffrey, Barkley, Elliott, Kamara, Cook and Henry. McCaffrey and Barkley have missed most of the season with injuries. Cook and Henry are the top two running backs in fantasy. Kamara was No. 1 but has been sliding. More on him later. Elliott is the only one of the Big 6 that has been a non-injury bust.

That’s right, I said bust. People can make excuses for Zeke, but the truth is the $15-million-per year running back is a fantasy and reality bust. He’s had single-digit production in four of the last five games. He hit rock bottom last week with 10 rushes for 32 and one reception for seven yards. That’s 2.9 fantasy points. I was lucky to win with him in my starting lineup. At this point, I’m planning on benching him in Week 13.

Let’s go back to the Thanksgiving Day game. The Cowboys were trailing by only seven points when they were suddenly given a boost by a Jaylon Smith interception that set them up inside the Washington 5-yard line. Zeke owners came alive because Elliott leads the league in goal-line carries. But after he lost two yards on first down, McCarthy’s ran a failed reverse and then Andy Dalton threw an incomplete pass. The Cowboys settled for a field goal.

With first and goal at the 5-yard line, the Cowboys had no confidence their star could put the ball in the end zone on three, or even four attempts. So, 20-16 was as close as Dallas would come, and the aforementioned failed red-zone drive was proof the Cowboys have lost confidence in Elliott. They went to him only once and then ignored him for the remainder of the series, just as they did in the second quarter on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1. 

You can’t blame the Cowboys for making that decision because the two-time rushing champion has been more of a liability than an asset. Granted, they miss quarterback Dak Prescott and are operating without 80 percent of a starting offensive line that was one of the best in football last season. But great running backs make plays – even when their team is imploding around him. Elliott once was a great running back, but he’s not great anymore.

Elliott would benefit from more support, and he did before the Prescott injury. But a player with the most valuable contract in the NFL at his position needs to be capable of overcoming poor quarterback play, questionable play-calling and a lack of offensive line continuity. Instead, the 25-year-old’s sixth fumble of the season set the tone for a nightmare second half for a Dallas team that couldn’t recover, literally or figuratively.

Those miscues have killed the Cowboys. But it’s not just the fumbles. It’s a lack of effort from Elliott, who is averaging just 3.7 yards-per-attempt average. Among 45 qualifying backs, he’s one of just 13 with a sub-4.0 average. Elliott has gained 20 yards on just one carry all season and that carry ended with a fumble. I thought runs of 18 and 15 yards last week in Minnesota were encouraging, but now it only proves the Vikings can’t stop anyone.  

Prior to Week 12, Elliott ranked 25th or lower among qualified backs in terms of yards after contact per attempt and attempts per broken tackle, and those numbers won’t be better after his last game. The Cowboys simply aren’t getting what they paid for when they handed Elliott a six-year, $90 million contract with more than $50 million guaranteed last September. And those who drafted Elliott third (like me) aren’t getting what they paid for.

So, what do you do if you drafted Elliott? That’s an important question if you’re in the fantasy playoffs – or in contention – heading into what is probably your final regular season matchup. My recommendation is to find an alternative. I was fortunate enough to pick up Latavius Murray off the waiver wire before Drew Brees went down with an injury because I knew Kamara was prone to injury and missing games late in the season.  

Murray’s stand-alone value was marginal before the Brees injury. He was getting as much rushing volume as Kamara, but not the targets. But without Kamara in the lineup, I figured I’d have a winning lottery ticket. Now, I’m beginning to believe that I might have an RB2 – even if Kamara continues to start for the New Orleans Saints. That’s because Kamara had only 10.6 fantasy points in Week 11 and 6.2 in Week 12.

ALVIN KAMARA

If you drafted Kamara in the first round, you are concerned. A few weeks ago, Kamara had more fantasy points than any running back in PPR leagues. But he clearly generated a lot of his fantasy value through his passing down role. Unfortunately, he’s caught just one pass in two weeks since Taysom Hill took over at quarterback. Consider that Kamara was averaging 28 PPG in the games before Hill and only 8.5 in the last two games.

Hill plays a different game from Drew Brees. The 41-year-old future Hall of Famer will only run if his life depends on it. When the pocket collapsed, Brees would dump off to Kamara. This is why Kamara caught 81 passes in each of the last three years. That’s 81 PPR points. But Hill will run out of the pocket, or even run on designed plays. This has meant a huge reduction in Kamara’s passing volume and fantasy production.

To put this in perspective, Kamara was averaging 19 touches per game before Hill replaced Brees at quarterback. Since that time, he’s averaged just 12.5 touches per game, and he’s scored just one of the Saints’ rushing touchdowns. Kamara’s worst running back ranking with Brees calling the signals was eighth. But in the last two weeks, he’s been ranked 25th and 29th. In other words, Kamara has dropped from a reliable top RB1 to a RB3.

So, what do you do if you drafted Kamara? I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the importance of owning the backup for key running backs like McCaffrey, Kamara and Cook. If you did the right thing, you already have Murray rostered. If you didn’t check the waiver wire. Murray’s ownership percentage was 60 percent in Yahoo leagues and 46 in ESPN leagues heading into Week 13. If he’s available, add him to your roster immediately.       

CLYDE EDWARD-HELAIRE

When Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season because of the COVID risk, the value of the rookie running back went through the roof. Playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, the best offense in the NFL, it seemed like the sky might be the limit for Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Add the fact that he was also playing for Andy Reid, a very RB-friendly head coach in terms of fantasy production, and he was a first-round pick in most drafts.

Edwards-Helaire (CEH) has not returned first-round value. He is currently averaging only 13.5 PPG. Since Le’Veon Bell’s arrival, it’s 11.5 There have been good games and bad games. In Week 11 he had 20.2 points against Las Vegas. However, last week he had only 4.9 points. That didn’t surprise me because I know Tampa Bay has the sixth-best running back defense. CEH looked a lot like Zeke, averaging only 3.7 yards per carry.

CEH’s value was depressed from its lofty preseason value before the arrival of Bell in Week 7. But the rookie has had only had two single-digit games for the season and is still a fringe RB1. His volume dropped dramatically after Bell’s arrival, but it’s now trending in the right direction. With favorable matchups the next two against Denver and Miami, I wouldn’t be too worried about CEH – especially if he’s your RB2 at this point.

Follow Thomas L. Seltzer, AKA Doubting Thomas, on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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