There’s no reason for Ezekiel Elliott to be asked to catch 77 passes on top of his usual 300-plus carries again. Unless the Cowboys plan on treating him like DeMarco Murray 2.0. @RobBob17 digs into Elliott’s fantasy outlook for 2019.
The concept of the “workhorse” running back is becoming a dinosaur in today’s NFL with teams across the league electing to divvy up their backfield touches across multiple players. We all know by now that it’s a copycat league, and coaching staffs are trying to replicate the success teams like the Patriots, Falcons, Saints, and Chargers have had recently with their running back combinations. The volatility is simply too much to ignore at the position, and offenses have been allocating their touches more efficiently in hopes of extending the shelf life of some of their best playmakers.
There’s no greater example of having a specific plan for one’s backfield than Sean Payton and the New Orleans Saints. For years, Mark Ingram would be shown on the sidelines butting heads with Payton after he’d be pulled for complimentary backs such as Pierre Thomas and Tim Hightower from 2014-16. Ingram was never too keen on getting yanked for a handful of snaps after he’d find his groove, but the Saints stuck to their plan and understood that he was too important to their overall success to subject him to an overwhelming amount of touches. Throughout his eight-year career with the Saints, Ingram never recorded 300 touches in a single season, which one could say aided in him playing all of his games in four of his eight seasons in ‘Nawlins.
After recording over 315 touches for three straight seasons, All-Pro Todd Gurley showed clear signs of breaking down at the tail end of 2018 with an arthritic knee, the same knee he tore his junior year at the University of Georgia. Gurley was forced to miss the final two regular season games and was limited to only 34 touches over the course of three playoff games all the way up to the Rams’ run at the Super Bowl. With rising concern over their recently extended back, Les Snead decided to protect his investment by trading up in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft for Memphis running back Darrell Henderson. Not only that, the Rams also matched the Detroit Lions’ $3.25 million offer sheet for restricted free agent running back Malcolm Brown. The writing is on the wall for a dramatic shift in how the Rams use Gurley going forward.
For the first three years as the Cowboys’ primary ball-handler, Ezekiel Elliott has led the league in average rushing yards per game, as well as being crowned with two rushing titles from ’16 and ’18. ‘Zeke also led the league in carries in both of those years with 322 and 304 rushing attempts, while leading the NFL in touches with 381 last season. Despite missing six games due to suspension in ’17, Elliott still averaged 26.8 touches per game. Elliott has established himself as one of the top backs in fantasy with what he’s been able to accomplish with this massive workload in the Cowboys’ offense. Through three seasons, Elliott has recorded 354, 268 (albeit in 10 games), and 381 touches respectively. Shockingly, Elliott has yet to miss a single game due to injury, despite this strenuous role in the offense.
The NFL has not seen such an iron man like ‘Zeke with these many touches year in, year out. It’s important to note that this has type of workload has been a longtime staple for Cowboys running backs under Jerry Jones. I was astonished to find out that Dallas holds six of the top 25 spots in NFL history for touches in a single season. DeMarco Murray’s 449 touches in ‘14 is good for sixth most in history, with Le’Veon Bell’s 406 touches in ‘17 and Arian Foster’s 393 touches in ’10 being the only other backs from this decade to crack the top 52. It’s no secret that Jones and the ‘Boys believe in sticking the rock into the gut of their back and letting him churn out big yardage.
Elliott is truly the last of a dying breed when it comes to running backs with such massive volume. If he were to get 350-plus touches again in 2019, he would be the first running back in over a decade to record as many touches in either, at minimum, three straight seasons or three out of four seasons. The last running back to have over 350 touches for at least three out of four seasons was Clinton Portis, recording over 370 touches in four out of five seasons from ’04-’08. Other players from the 21st century on this list include:
- Rudi Johnson ’04-’06
- Edgerrin James ’03-’06
- Tiki Barber ’02-’06
- Corey Dillon ’01-’04
- Ricky Williams ’01-’03
- Shaun Alexander ’01-’05
- Priest Holmes ’01-’03
- LaDainian Tomlinson ’01-’07
- Eddie George ’96-’02
- Curtis Martin ’95-’01
I think it’s irresponsible to sit here and speculate injury for NFL players, especially for someone like Elliott who has yet to miss a single game due to health. But his workload is alarming, no matter how you slice it, especially when you consider that the data isn’t exactly in his favor. “Workhorses” over the past decade such as Gurley, David Johnson, Bell, LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, Matt Forte, and Foster couldn’t sustain a workload of Elliott’s magnitude. To their credit, guys like Chris Johnson and Ray Rice didn’t record as many touches but were able to play all 16 games for at least four consecutive seasons with over 300 touches.
With the Cowboys drafting Tony Pollard in the fourth round and spending their highest draft capital on running back since Elliott arrived in ’16, does that mean Jerry Jones is capable of adapting to the modern-day NFL? Insert newly promoted offensive coordinator Kellen Moore and the Cowboys have what appears to be an innovative system on its way this season. It’s one thing for Jerry and the rest of the Cowboys brass to make comments like this to Pro Football Talk in May, “The Cowboys have visions of using Pollard the way the Saints used Alvin Kamara as a rookie.” and it’s an entirely different deal to alter a philosophy that’s existed within the franchise for over 30 years.
There’s no reason whatsoever for Elliott to be asked to catch 77 passes on top of his usual 300-plus carries again in ’19. Unless, of course, the Cowboys plan on treating Elliott as DeMarco Murray 2.0 and running him into the ground (which they’ve done every year since he’s been there).
Considering the Cowboys’ recent string of success over the past few drafts, you don’t select a player of Pollard’s receiving chops without a specific plan in place. If they decide to reduce Elliott’s workload by letting Moore manufacture efficient touches for ‘Zeke and Pollard, will Jerry and Jason Garrett have the discipline that Payton and Saints demonstrated with Ingram? If Jerry can’t get out of his own way, grab your bibs and buckle up for another big season. Maybe slip in a rabbit’s foot in your back pocket on Sundays this fall and keep your fingers crossed if you happen to be an Elliott owner? Just in case, you can never be too careful with these sorts of things.