Ezekiel Elliott or Tony Pollard: Which Cowboys’ RB offers more fantasy draft value in 2022?

This time of year, fantasy football debates always revolve around value: ADPs, risk vs. reward, bargains, potential breakouts, etc. Every fantasy owner wants to know about the best sleepers and the potential bust candidates to avoid is applicable. As we delve deeper into value nuances, it makes sense for us to evaluate specific backfields for likely usage patterns between the starter and the handcuff. Perhaps in Dallas, where Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard are both poised as potential fantasy contributors, no backfield with a clear starter and handcuffs will be scrutinized before the drafts.

To the naked eye — or the casual football fan — Elliott is in a class of his own in this conversation, several levels above the likes of Pollard. Zeke has accomplished a lot since joining the league in 2016 when he became only the 10th rookie RB selected as an All-Pro. Since then, the Ohio State product has had 56 career TDs, nearly 7,400 rushing yards and 370 yards under 10,000 career scrimmage yards.

DOMINATE YOUR DRAFT: Ultimate 2022 Fantasy Cheat Sheet

However, the fantasy football community is very focused on “What have you been doing for me lately?” and “What will you do for me in the coming season?” The cleats of the running back position are known to vary from one season to the next, much more than any other position in the sport.

Could Tony Pollard be more valuable to fantasy owners this season? If not, could it at least return more value to investments on draft day? Let’s flesh out this discussion and evaluate the pros and cons when it comes to dragging one cowboy over the other.

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Ezekiel Elliott Fantasy Outlook 2022

The most obvious case for Elliott is his track record. A two-time All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler, he has led the NFL in rushing twice and has averaged the most rushing yards per game in three separate seasons. He has logged double-digit rushing TDs in three different campaigns including 2021.

Zeke may not be as efficient as he was in his early NFL years — he averaged 4.7 yards per carry in his first three seasons, compared to 4.3 in the last three — but he still flirts with a carry percentage of 60 percent each year. At 26, he recorded 237 rushing attempts and a total of 284 touches last season. The most intriguing part is his touches and production in the red.

Elliott turned 35 red-zone carries into 10 touchdowns last season and had seven TDs on 17 carries inside the opponent’s 10. This is hugely efficient, as is his 15 out of 19 catch rate within the red zone. His height (6-0, 228 pounds), strength, good hands, great vision and footwork have kept him in the top NFL RBs discussion year after year.

Elliott has only fumbled the ball once in all of 2021, which is pretty amazing for a guy who has touched the ball nearly 300 times and scored 12 total TDs. He’s the clear No. 1 in a solid offense that has 22 the simplest strength of the schedule. It’s easy to see why people design it as the RB12 or better – and 30th overall or earlier – in their fantasy redesign leagues.

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Tony Pollard Fantasy Outlook 2022

Pollard doesn’t have Elliott’s track record, so he gets a lot less shine — but that could be the exact reason to target him on draft day.

Pollard finished the 2021 season with Cleveland’s Nick Chubb for the most efficient running back with an excellent average of 5.5 yards per carry. He also hauled in 39 out of 46 targets, good for an 84.8 percent catch rate. That’s 12.5 percent higher than Zeke’s overall catch rate, and he caught 2.5 more yards per catch than Zeke.

Pollard totaled 1,056 yards in just 169 touches last season, good for 6.2 yards per touch. He’s 25 and unlike Elliott, he’s never played fewer than 15 games in a season. Pollard’s quick tries and general touches have increased incrementally over each of the past two seasons. In his second campaign, his touch count increased by 28. Last year, in his third season, his touch count increased by 40.

The trends all point to another significant increase in volume and production for Pollard this season. He could easily be approaching a 50/50 split, similar to what we’ve seen with Chubb and Kareem Hunt in Cleveland in years past, or even with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams last season. Pollard makes the most of every opportunity, so it stands to reason that usage (and land production) should increase.

Even if he simply repeats his 21 production and finds the end zone a few more times, Pollard seems worth his ADP at 79. He only had two total TDs last season, largely due to receiving just 15 red-zone carries (and three inside the opponent’s 10-yard line—feed him!), but when Zeke misses , Pollard immediately jumps into autostart RB1 territory, much like Minnesota’s Alexander Mattison does every time Dalvin Cook suffers an injury.

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The case against Ezekiel Elliott’s draft

We’ve demoted Elliott to RB13 in our rankings this season, and honestly that feels generous at times. Sure, he’s still a big, strong, multi-skill defender, and his volume in the scoring zone — a total of 139 red-zone carries over the past three seasons — obviously makes him a hot commodity. The writing was on the wall for a looming regression, however, and the best fantasy owners will cut bait like Bill Belichick before any of his Patriots players reach their peak.

There are three main issues that should serve as Zeke warning signs: Utilization, Efficiency, and Production Valuation.

Eliot wears and Touches have declined in each of the last three seasons. Take a look at his total volume numbers from 2018-21:

Year Age Carries Catches touches
2018 23 304 77 381
2019 24 301 54 355
2020 25 244 52 296
2021 26 237 47 284

AUCTION VALUES 2022 (Standard & PPR):
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Now let’s look at Zeke’s decreasing efficiency since ’18. Have a look.

Year Hurry A/G Rush Y/G Rec.J/G catch % FPTs/G
2018 20.3 95.6 37.8 81.1 16.8
2019 18.8 84.8 26.3 76.1 16.1
2020 16.3 65.3 22.5 73.2 11.5
2021 13.9 58.9 16.9 72.3 12.1

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Finally, let’s go through Zeke’s touchdown ratio in the red zone and what percentage of Zeke’s fantasy points come from touchdowns:

Year RZ Att. RZ TDs RZ TD% Tot. TD’s Tot. FPT’s FPT’s from TD’s
2018 39 5 12.8 9 252.1 21.4%
2019 59 11 18.6 14 257.7 32.5%
2020 45 6 13.3 8th 171.7 27.9%
2021 35 10 28.5 12 205.1 35.1%

It’s easy to fall for the big names in the imagination, but nostalgia never earns us championship trophies. These trends make it very clear that Elliott is in the midst of a sharp decline that is being obscured by touchdown volume. Judging by opportunity and efficiency, those ’21 TD numbers are due for some serious regression, even with the Cowboys’ pie schedule.

Everything about Zeke’s numbers tells us he’s past his prime, save for the 12 TDs backed by an absurd 28.5 percent TD percentage in the red. Those TDs accounted for a whopping 35 percent of his fantasy points. It won’t happen again, I’d bet my fantasy life on it. Elliott could very well be a third-round bust. Catching him in the second round could be a napalm bomb for your entire season. In the words of Walter White, “tread lightly”.

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The case against Tony Pollard’s draft

Of course, Pollard could fall victim to further usage restrictions, especially in the red. Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Kellen Moore have shown an odd level of loyalty to their starters throughout their careers. Perhaps they honestly see Zeke as the better option and will continue to ride him despite Pollard’s clear superiority in per-carry efficiency.

But I don’t buy it. You can’t overlook what all of these trends are suggesting – these backs are on opposite tracks, and Pollard is a key asset that can make a big contribution to chain moving and win-stacking. He won’t be broke at 79 ADP unless he gets injured.

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Final Verdict: Which Cowboys RB Has More Fantasy Value?

In goalie leagues we decide each year which players are worth keeping at a certain goalie cost/round. We do value-to-cost analyses, just like we do when buying everyday items, to stay on budget. For example, this year I have to decide whether to keep Travis Kelce in the second round or Josh Allen in the fifth round. With elite tight ends being harder to come by than QBs, Kelce will likely be the game. In the same vein, we also need to balance RB stats through targeted turns.

Quite simply, Elliott with his 30 ADP is a much less valuable pick than Pollard with his 79 ADP. Year after year, Elliott’s usage numbers paint a vivid picture of a player whose best days are behind him, and we’ve seen it for years afterwards he struggles as a fantasy producer if he doesn’t get to the end zone. As said, he’s a questionable second-round pick and might even be a little upside pick for the third round.

Meanwhile, Pollard is coming off a season in which he had career bests on quick tries (130), goals (46), and pretty much every stat beyond TDs. No NFL backs surpassed their averages of 5.5 yards per carry or 2.5 yards per route run, and only three backs with at least 100 carries averaged more yards after contact per attempt. He also had the third-best catch percentage (84.8 percent) and breakaway run percentage (8.5 percent).

Pollard is a very good investment in Standard in late 5th or early 6th rounds, and an even better pick in PPR leagues. Kellen Moore has suggested he will make more use of Pollard’s passing skills this season, even setting him wide apart to create disagreements. Elliott’s declining catch rates and inability to create a stretch separation – combined with Dallas WR James Washington’s foot injury, which could force him to miss up to 10 games – means Pollard has opportunities for more touches early and often.

I would choose Pollard over Kareem Hunt and Miles Sanders in a heartbeat. The Memphis product is by far the best RB handcuff, but it’s flex-bootable even if it’s not the first Cowboy RB to touch the ball in every game. If he skips Zeke or if Zeke gets injured at any point, Pollard becomes an RB1 lock with the potential for league-winning numbers.

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