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RED FLAG: RB Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

First-round selections feel like a no-doubt home run. They’re going to kill it, and for players with question marks we choose to ignore every red flag to convince ourselves nothing bad will happen. Nod your head if that sounds familiar, because I’m right there with you. Let’s try to not make that mistake again.

Out of the consensus Top 10 in 2016, almost half of the supposed elite running backs and wide receivers were busts based on their average draft position (ADP) such as Todd Gurley, DeAndre Hopkins and Lamar Miller. That gut-punch feeling will happen to countless fantasy owners again this year, but with enough insight perhaps the odds of suffering disappointment can be lessened.

A few guys come to mind based on ADP and early mock drafts. Leading up to training camp, this is my No. 1 superstar who’s most likely to under-perform.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys (ADP 1.03)

I get it. If you’re the third pick in a redraft league and David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell are off the board, how could you not take Elliott? He’s coming off arguably the greatest rookie running back season, exceeding statistics from Hall-of-Famers Earl Campbell (1978) and Barry Sanders (1989). Elliott was the NFL’s rushing champion with 1,631 yards on the ground at 5.1 yards per carry. He had 15 rushing touchdowns, 363 receiving yards and another score. The soon-to-be 22-year-old’s imposing physique is an elite athlete definition of stud, a “large-headed piece of metal that pierces” would-be tacklers. Quite frankly, Ezekiel Elliott is real and he’s spectacular.

That paragraph of admiration went on longer than anticipated. As great as his inaugural season was, the signs for diminished fantasy value are in front of everyone’s face it they’re willing to open their eyes.

Heavy Workload
Elliott will be an RB1 just likely not on par with his 2016 numbers. One argument is the Dallas Cowboys rely too much on their tailback. In 15 games last year, he had 322 rushing attempts and 32 receptions for a total of 354 touches. Likely no big deal but in today’s day and age where 300 carries in a season is like a 100-pitch limit for starting pitchers in the major leagues, it’s worth noting. The “Curse of 370” was coined more than a decade ago by Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders, suggesting those who carry the ball more than 370 times in a season will suffer a decline in production the following year.

More examples can be given to support the claim but it’s not foolproof. Plus, Elliott didn’t reach that frightening threshold, finishing 16 total touches shy, or 48 carries off the mark. He was also the beneficiary of not playing in Week 17 and only had 15, 18 and 12 carries in three separate games due to blowout victories. In the other 12 games that were closer he averaged 23.1 rushes (23.2 over 16 games reaches 370). He has broad shoulders and can take the pounding, but being overworked is a legitimate concern.

Strength of Schedule
To say Elliott was like a hot knife through butter would be disrespectful to the dairy product when chilled or at room temperature. Dallas’ opponents – Washington, New York Giants, Chicago, San Francisco, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Minnesota, Tampa Bay and Detroit – tied for the 27th-easiest schedule with a .465 winning percentage (119-137). The national media rarely mentioned “America’s Team” went 13-3, in part, because of weak opponents, which further strengthens the argument on the absurdity of Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott being ranked as the 14th-best player in the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2017.” But I digress.

As great as Elliott is, he was gashing a 20th-ranked rushing defense on average each week. The only reason that average isn’t higher is because the New York Giants and Green Bay are tied for third and eighth, respectively. This year, based on opponents’ winning percentage in 2016, Dallas is tied for the 10th-hardest schedule with a .513 winning percentage (136-120). Aside from six NFC East games, Dallas faces the Los Angeles Chargers, Los Angeles Rams, Arizona, Atlanta, Denver, Green Bay, Kansas City, Oakland, San Francisco and Seattle. Now let’s focus on this season’s new opponents. Seattle, Oakland, Kansas City, Denver, Atlanta, Arizona, and both Los Angeles teams have the 17th-ranked rushing defense on average, with Seattle, Los Angeles Rams and Arizona in the Top 10.

The rushing defenses, based on last year’s stats, are slightly better in 2017. The opposing offenses are superior as well, meaning it’s logical to predict Dallas will rely less on Elliott and more on Prescott’s arm to play catch-up. The Cowboys defense is OK but allowed the fifth-fewest points last year due to poor competition that allowed them to control the game on the ground. It may seem lame to cherry-pick a 13-3 team. You won’t be saying that if Dallas goes 10-6, per Schatz’s prediction.

About Tyler Huey

A journalist for almost 10 years, he's won many sports writing awards including news articles and opinion columns, and has played fantasy football for more than a decade. He hopes you enjoy his point of view.

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