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The Back of the Napkin Math on How Ezekiel Elliott Can be a Top 5 Running Back in 2016

I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of fantasy draft season in 2016 the most polarizing question is whether Ezekiel Elliott is worth a first round fantasy pick. Just based on first impressions I could see the point of both sides.

Detractors will call it rookie fever and point out other times that similarly hyped rookies, like Ryan Mathews and Mark Ingram, let fantasy owners down. Meanwhile, proponents will say that Elliott is a special talent in a special situation and it’s dumb to get caught up in pattern matching using just the latest examples of overhyped rookies.

While I think the real way to come up with a reasonable opinion on this issue is to just sit down and do a projection of the Cowboys offense that’s informed by both past rookie results, as well as what we know about the team, I think there are also other things you can do to just get in the ballpark. One of those things is to look at how past top 10 backs have performed in their rookie seasons.

The table below reflects any top 10 NFL draft pick running back going back to the 2000 season that had at least one carry in his rookie year.

Player Year Age Draft Tm G GS Att Yds Y/A TD Rec Yds TD Y/Tgt FP
Jamal Lewis 2000 21 5.00 BAL 16 13 309 1364 4.41 6 27 296 0 8.22 229.00
Todd Gurley 2015 21 10.00 STL 13 12 229 1106 4.83 10 21 188 0 7.23 210.40
Reggie Bush 2006 21 2.00 NOR 16 8 155 565 3.65 6 88 742 2 6.13 266.70
Darren McFadden 2008 21 4.00 OAK 13 5 113 499 4.42 4 29 285 0 7.31 131.40
Adrian Peterson 2007 22 7.00 MIN 14 9 238 1341 5.63 12 19 268 1 9.57 257.90
LaDainian Tomlinson 2001 22 5.00 SDG 16 16 339 1236 3.65 10 59 367 0 4.96 279.30
Trent Richardson 2012 22 3.00 CLE 15 15 267 950 3.56 11 51 367 1 5.24 254.70
Thomas Jones 2000 22 7.00 ARI 14 4 112 373 3.33 2 32 208 0 4.52 102.10
Cadillac Williams 2005 23 5.00 TAM 14 14 290 1178 4.06 6 20 81 0 3.24 181.90
C.J. Spiller 2010 23 9.00 BUF 14 1 74 283 3.82 0 24 157 1 5.23 74.00
Cedric Benson 2005 23 4.00 CHI 9 1 67 272 4.06 0 1 3 0 3.00 28.50
Ronnie Brown 2005 24 2.00 MIA 15 14 207 907 4.38 4 32 232 1 4.94 175.90

The average PPR points scored for those backs was 182 points. If a back scored that many points in 2015 he would have finished just ahead of Gio Bernard, which would have been RB16. But you could also look at that table and get a really rough estimate of where in the distribution Elliott would have to slot in order to be a top five back in 2016. The 75th percentile is 257 points, which would have been RB3 last year. Over the past three years though the average finish for RB5 has been 259 points, so that RB3 finish for last year is slightly inflated perhaps by a really weak RB season.

Again, this isn’t an exercise meant to answer this question precisely. It’s only a test of reasonableness, which I think Elliott likely would have to pass. All he would have to do to be in the RB5 mix is have a top 75th percentile season for top 10 picks. You could argue that because most of these picks were made in years when teams were throwing away picks on RBs in the first round all the time, that Elliott is actually a better prospect than many of these players.1 However, that argument could also cut the other way since it was also more common during those years for running backs to score more as a position.

The real question you have to ask yourself before you draft Elliott is whether you’re taking him over any RBs that can score more points for your team. The exercise above doesn’t directly answer that question but it is one that I think could inform the answer. I’ll be working on my updated Cowboys projection where I suspect I’ll probably give Elliott something like half of the team’s carries while Darren McFadden takes 30 percent. Note even “most talented running back since Adrian Peterson” namesake Adrian Peterson gave up about that many carries to Chester Taylor.

More to come on this issue as I work on my projections.

  1. A team would have to be even more confident in him in the current climate to use a top five pick.  (back)

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