NFL
July 7, 2021

Here's Why Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott is Primed for Bounce-Back 2021 Season

Everyone loves a great redemption story.

The beautiful thing about football is that the NFL offers a plethora of playmakers the opportunity to reinvent themselves and redeem their value after a disappointing campaign. And the best way to do that is to have a breakout fantasy football season.

The Dallas Cowboys are looking to feature multiple redemption stories in 2021. Dak Prescott and Leighton Vander Esch are coming back from injury-plagued years. Ezekiel Elliott and Jaylon Smith had letdown seasons despite being in the primes of their careers.

The Cowboys' star running back is especially interesting. Despite many prognosticators losing faith in his value, he still ranked 11th amongst fantasy backs in 2020. The question isn't whether Elliott can produce well enough to justify a first-round pick as he enters his sixth season, though.

Elliott's efficiency is a question as his 26th birthday nears. He's been in a decline with explosive plays as his career has raged on. He hasn't seen his yards per game rise in any season, and his yards per carry and yards per reception have dropped significantly since even two years ago, let alone his rookie campaign.

Not all of this has to do with the former Ohio State star. Missing Prescott last year was massive, and the Cowboys' offensive line was beaten up beyond belief last year. Then, Dallas' porous defense forced the unit to throw the ball more than they wanted.

All of the factors have affected Elliott's ability to eat. Elliott's ability to stay in shape has also been a major storyline. A powerful runner who wins with vision and foot quickness between the tackle box, Elliott's bulk has usurped his overall speed and burst through the line. This offseason, there's been a ton of hype around Elliott, including his running back coach saying he's looking "way quicker," among other demonstrably positive reviews, per The Athletic

That shouldn't surprise anybody. Elliott's always been a freakish talent thanks to his balance and subtly efficient feet. His powerful legs weren't especially fast, though, and his ability to create chunk yards was more dependent on the first five yards than his ability to create more on his own after the first level of the defense.

Even in a best-case scenario, there's only so much that can be done for Elliott's athleticism. He's never won with the otherworldly speed of Tyreek Hill, or the insane contact balance of Alvin Kamara. Elliott is as well-rounded as they come, especially thanks to his premier pass-catching ability.

No one will confuse him for an athletic marvel compared to his peers considering he had only one 20-yard run in 2020. There's room for improvement in the margins and this should excite his fantasy owners and prospective drafters. What the hype shouldn't do is cause drafters to completely overlook the red flags with Elliott's profile and see his limited production ceiling in a loaded offense.

The most realistic pathway for Elliott is to find a middle ground between his stellar 2019 and average 2020 output. He'll be a complementary piece to Prescott and a deep corps of receivers. At a minimum, Elliott should reach 1,500 total yards and 10 touchdowns thanks to his inevitable role within the offense, but there's not a possibility of leading the league in yards or scores.

Getting Elliott in the late-first round is still a great pick, but don't justify it by trusting the headlines this offseason. His film is solid but unspectacular, and his opportunity is strong. The biggest potential downside is the wear and tear on his body, but this is where we can put some faith in the offseason reports. 

Being lighter can help him endure more carries and stay fresh. Elliott will split time with the more explosive Tony Pollard but will win when it comes to red zone carries. His role is as safe as any in the NFL. 

Overthinking Elliott can easily go positively or negatively, but he's become the most consistent performer in his draft range for a good reason. His skill set is refined even as his athleticism has dipped. The best case is the headlines are right, but he won't be more than a solid value who creeps into the top-six running backs. 

Photo: Getty Images