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(All summer, Adam Pfeifer will be putting the tightest fantasy football picks under the microscope in ourADP Decisions series.)
For many fantasy drafts this summer, the decision-making is really going to start at third overall. Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook will be the consensus top two selections in most drafts, but after that, you can legitimately make the case for four or five different players.
Two of those players are Ezekiel Elliott of the Dallas Cowboys and Saquon Barkley of the New York Giants. In many ways, both elite running backs had lost seasons in 2020, but there is still no denying the immense upside. But should either player be on your radar with the third overall selection?
And if so, who?
The case for Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott is coming off a season where he finished as the RB9 in fantasy, but the campaign was viewed as a letdown by many. And I get it. Zeke was the RB16 in points per game, averaging just 4.0 yards per carry. Over the last few seasons, we have also seen Elliott’s explosive runs (runs of at least 15 yards) fall off a cliff. In 2020, Elliott finished with just five such runs, tied for 35th among all qualified rushers. And among running backs with at least 50 attempts last season, his 11.6% explosive run rate was the 13th-lowest mark in the league.
Because of the lack of explosive plays, many are wondering truly how good Elliott is, while also questioning whether Tony Pollard deserves more work. Pollard sported a 32% explosive run rate, while his 3.51 yards after contact per attempt ranked fourth among all running backs with at least 40 totes. Sure, you can make the case Pollard is more explosive at times than Elliott, but I still hesitate to say he is the overall better back. And Dallas doesn’t think so either, as Elliott still logged nearly 70% of the offensive snaps. Elliott still finished fifth in the NFL in yards trucking (440), which are the number of yards gained with one or more tacklers on top of the ball carrier. He also forced a healthy 45 missed tackles on the ground, good for the seventh-most in the league. And for whatever reason, many seem to think Elliott is pushing 30 years old because he’s been around for a while but he’s only going to be 26 when the season starts.
Of course, the main storyline surrounding the Cowboys season was the injury to Dak Prescott, which resulted in the offense falling apart. Prior to Prescott’s injury, Elliott was the RB2 in all of fantasy, while his 32 receptions during those five weeks were the second-most among all running backs. During that same span, Elliott also saw 14 carries from inside the 5-yard line, easily the most in the league, and he paced all running backs in routes run, as well (172). The two highest-value touches in all of fantasy are goal-line carries and receptions, and Elliott was getting both as much as basically any running back in the NFL before Prescott’s injury. Ultimately, Elliott was barely a top-24 fantasy running back after Prescott went down, but he still got those valuable touches, as his 26 carries from inside the 5-yard line tied with Dalvin Cook for the most in the NFL. However, it wasn’t just the injury to Prescott that derailed this offense. Once an elite unit, the Cowboys offensive line couldn’t stay healthy this past season. Star tackle Tyron Smith dealt with a neck injury and played just two games, while La"el Collins missed the entire season with a hip injury. Oh, and All-Pro guard Zack Martin missed six games as well. As a result, the Cowboys finished 31st in the league in yards before contact per attempt (1.15), a number that should soar as long as they stay remotely healthy.
Between the return of their star quarterback and key offensive linemen, the Cowboys should return to a top-five offense in 2021, which gives Elliott massive upside for fantasy. And the philosophy won’t change under offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, which is very fantasy friendly. The Cowboys led the NFL in seconds per snap this past season at 24.8, while their 69.6 plays per game were the second-most in football. Entering 2021, the offense should look very similar, and we know this team is going to put points on the board. And while Pollard is a very strong backup running back, he isn’t taking meaningful work away from Elliott, who is one of the few running backs in the league that has the potential to see 270 carries and 50-plus receptions.
The case for Saquon Barkley
2020 was a lost season for Barkley, who played only 67 total snaps before suffering a season-ending ACL tear in Week 2. His lone full game was an ugly one, as he rushed 15 times for only 6 yards, adding six catches for 60 yards. Of course, that was against the elite Steelers run defense, and at the end of the day, we have to love the 21 touches and near-90% snap rate. When healthy, we know Barkley is arguably the most talented running back in the NFL but he’s missed a lot of time over the last two seasons. And when he’s ready to roll, the Giants are going to feature him. When we last fully saw Barkley in 2019, he averaged nearly 21 touches per game. And in his 13 games, Barkley was the RB4 in fantasy, while also ranking top-seven among all running backs in targets, receptions and receiving yards. So we clearly see what the upside can be for Barkley. It just comes down to whether he’s ready for Week 1 and if the Giants will give him a full workload right out of the gate. We also saw the Giants really rely on the run last year, despite missing their all-world running back. New York posted the 10th-highest rushing rate in neutral gamescripts, and from Week 6 on, they called run at a top-five rate. Fast forward to 2021 in a season where they will (hopefully) have their elite running back for the entire year and it is tough to imagine the Giants changing their offensive philosophy too much, especially with archaic Jason Garrett calling plays.
The offensive line needs to be better, too. New York ranked 22nd in run-blocking last season, according to Pro Football Focus. Of course, they were even worse in pass-protection, as Daniel Jones was under pressure on just over 40% of his dropbacks last season, one of the highest marks in football. If they continue to struggle to give Jones time in the pocket, that could lead to plenty of check downs to Barkley, who has a legitimate ceiling of 65-70 receptions, despite the Giants adding receivers in the offseason.
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The verdict: Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott is my third-ranked overall player in fantasy ahead of the season, which means it is pretty obvious that I am taking him over Barkley. I truly don’t see any question marks surrounding Elliott this season. He has a workhorse role, plays in an elite offense, gets goal line work and catches passes. And sure, Barkley might be able to check three of those four boxes, but I just don’t see the Giants matching Dallas’ offense, especially if both the offensive line and Daniel Jones don’t improve. Add the fact that Barkley is coming off a torn ACL and Elliott is the much safer selection, and security is what you are looking for from your first selection in fantasy.