A Case for Zeke at 1.01 in 2019
A Case for Zeke at 1.01 in 2019
Fantasy football drafts are won and lost in the later rounds, but if you’re lucky enough to get the number one pick, you need to ensure you’re making the right selection because choosing incorrectly could be the deciding factor on if you win your league. With that being said, there is a shoo-in number one overall pick in 2019, and that’s Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott.
When drafting at number one, you’re looking for a player that can consistently give you elite performances on a week-to-week basis, and Elliott has done that throughout his career. Since entering the league in 2016, Elliott’s lowest finish in PPR scoring was 12th, which came in 2017 when he only played 10 games. Before being suspended, Elliott was averaging 20.3 PPR points-per-game, and assuming he would’ve kept that average up, he would’ve finished as RB3 in 2017. This means that in his 3 years in the NFL, his lowest finish would be RB5.
The Arrival of Amari Cooper
The Dallas Cowboys went into the 2019 season with hopes of a super bowl, but those hopes took a big hit when they decided to cut All-Pro wide receiver, Dez Bryant. With no replacement in mind, the Cowboys were left with an underwhelming receiving core with players like Allen Hurns, Tavon Austin, Cole Beasley, and rookie Michael Gallup. To no one’s surprise, the Cowboys offense and Ezekiel Elliott’s fantasy numbers were both underwhelming in the first seven games of the 2019 season. With the Cowboys sitting at 3-4, owner and general manager Jerry Jones made the risky move of trading a first-round pick for Pro-Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper, which saved Ezekiel Elliott’s fantasy season.
Before Amari Cooper arrived, Elliott was averaging just 18.34 PPG. If you average that out over a full 16 games and compare it to other running back scores in 2018, he would’ve finished with 293.49 points. That’s nearly 100 points behind Saquon Barkley who finished as RB1 in 2019. However, if you look at Zeke’s numbers after the Cooper trade, he was on average to finish with over 405 fantasy points. That would’ve put him 20 points above Barkley and finish as RB1. Overall, the addition of a number one receiver paid dividends for Zeke, and now that Cooper will fully experience an offseason with the Cowboys, it will secure Zeke as the number one RB in 2019.
Healthy Offensive Line
After Zeke’s fantastic 2016 season, fans were quick to say Zeke was a product of his offensive line, which boasted three All-Pro players in Zack Martin, Tyron Smith, and Travis Frederick. In 2018, the Cowboys suffered a huge loss as a 2x first-team All-Pro and 4x Pro-Bowl center Travis Frederick was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a condition where the immune system attacks the nerves.
The first chart shows the percentages of where the Cowboys ran the ball along the offensive line in 2018 and the second chart shows the NFL average. While the Cowboys were below the league average in running up the middle in 2018, they’re still below the league average in yards-per-carry when running up the middle. With Travis Frederick missing the entire season, Frederick was replaced by Joe Looney. Looney finished as the 32nd ranked center (according to PFF) and had an overall PFF score of 52.0.
These two charts are the same kind of data as above, but they’re from the Cowboys 2016 season which is when Travis Frederick played a full 16-game season. When running up the middle in 2016, the Cowboys were well above the 2016 league average, the 2018 league average, and their 2018 team average.
The average yards-per-carry drop in 2018 could be placed on the backup center, Joe Looney. Zeke has proven to be more efficient with Frederick in the lineup and with the rest of the offensive line set to be back in 2019, Zeke will dominate like it’s his rookie year again.
Why not Saquon Barkley?
If you’re not taking Zeke number one, it’s most likely you’re considering Giants running back Saquon Barkley, which makes sense considering he finished as RB1 in PPR-scoring leagues last year. However, due to the surrounding pieces, Saquon isn’t the best choice if you hold the first pick.
Although Eli Manning struggled last year, the Giants finished as the highest-scoring offense in the NFC East and 16th in the NFL overall. Those numbers came with star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who Giants general manager Dave Gettleman traded in March. With OBJ gone, expect Barkley’s numbers to drop far enough where he shouldn’t be the number one pick.
In the four games Barkley played without Beckham last year, Barkley’s average PPG dropped by almost five points. If averaged out, he would’ve finished as RB5 in 2018. Even if Barkley had OBJ for a full season, his averages suggest he’d finish with just over 402 PPR points, while Zeke’s total points when factoring in Amari Cooper was 405.60.
Why not Christian McCaffery?
Christian McCaffery entered the first pick conversation due to his explosion in 2018, more specifically, the last 8 games where he scored 220.5 PPR points. Due to the heavy workload and backfield situation, McCaffery has the path to be the number one running back in 2019. However, due to him only having one top 5 PPR season on his résumé, and the number one pick being about getting a guaranteed point-scorer, Ezekiel Elliott is still the top choice on draft boards.
Before McCaffery caught on fire for the final eight games of the season, he was sitting at RB8 and almost 100 points behind current RB1 Todd Gurley. This explosion didn’t come because of an increase in volume as McCaffery rushed the ball 109 times in the first eight games and 110 times in the second 8. He caught 47 passes in the first half while catching 58 in the second. The increase in points simply came from more touchdowns and total yards, but the fact that we’ve only seen top 5 RB type numbers from McCaffery over an eight-game stretch while he’s played 32 NFL games is concerning. Consistency is vital in fantasy football and based on the numbers Elliott and McCaffery have recorded, Elliott is the safer option at number one overall.
Why not Alvin Kamara?
Alvin Kamara has had two top 4 fantasy seasons since entering the league, both of which came with Mark Ingram in the same backfield. Ingram signed with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason which gave many fans the impression that Kamara would be a workhorse back, just like he was during Ingram’s season-opening four-game suspension. In that four-game stretch, Kamara was the first overall running back and averaged 33.02 PPR PPG. With all that being said, Sean Payton does not care about our fantasy football teams as the Saints signed running back Latavius Murray to serve as a change-of-pace running back. With Murray now in the fold, Kamara will still serve as a reliable fantasy option but isn’t the best choice with the first overall pick.
The two charts above showcase Kamara’s performance in 2018 with and without Mark Ingram. In the four games Ingram didn’t play, Kamara had three games where he finished above his 2018 23.6 PPG average. When Ingram returned, Kamara had six games where he finished below 23.6. If it weren’t for Ingram’s suspension, Kamara’s average in that 12-game stretch suggests that he would’ve finished with 314.33 PPR points, which would make him RB5 in 2018. Kamara having to share the backfield with a reliable running back while Zeke stands alone allows Zeke a clearer path to RB1 in 2019.
Whether it be Ezekiel Elliott, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffery, or Alvin Kamara, you’ll be getting great fantasy production. However, with the first pick, wouldn’t you want the skill position player that will score the most points? If so, Ezekiel Elliott is the easy choice.