Ezekiel Elliott’s year away from the Cowboys was better than you think

In case you missed it, the Cowboys finally followed through on something that seemed like an inevitability all offseason, bringing back Ezekiel Elliott on a one-year deal guaranteed at $2 million, worth up to $3 million.

It’s a stark contrast from the last time Elliott played for the Cowboys, when he held one of the largest salaries at the position. Now, he’s tied with Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. for 25th in annual average value among running backs. For context, Elliott is just behind Jaguars running back Travis Etienne, a former first-round pick who is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

Elliott, of course, comes back to Dallas after a brief absence in which he played for the Patriots in what turned out to be Bill Belichick’s final season there. His numbers as a Patriot weren’t exactly eye-opening, but then again there was little offensive production to go around in New England last year. One thing that has some fans alarmed at Elliott’s signing is the fact that he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry last year, easily a career low.

That said, the numbers are a bit misleading. Elliott held a significantly smaller role in New England than he ever did in Dallas, with just 184 carries on the year; that’s the first time in his career that Zeke saw fewer than 230 carries. He also saw more usage in the passing game, as Elliott hit 50+ receptions and 300+ receiving yards for the first time since 2020.

As a runner, though, Elliott was used primarily in short yardage and goal-to-go situations. While he wasn’t perfect, Elliott did produce in this new role. In short yardage situations – defined as carries with three or fewer yards to the first down marker, Elliott gained the first down on 69.4% of his carries; he hit on 67.3% of those carries in 2022. And on carries inside the 10-yard line, Elliott averaged 2.5 yards per carry with the Patriots, a marginal improvement over his 2.0 yards per carry in 2022.

Let’s take a look at the advanced statistics for Elliott in 2022 and 2023, in an attempt to isolate his actual efficiency regardless of workload:

Ezekiel Elliott Advanced Statistics, 2022 vs 2023

2022 2023
2022 2023
Success Rate 47.6% 45.1%
Efficiency 3.93 3.91
TLOS 2.72 2.71
RYOE/Att -0.34 -0.39

What does this mean? In short, the Patriots’ version of Zeke was pretty much the same as the Cowboys’ most recent version of Zeke, just with a significantly lighter workload. Success rate measures the percentage of carries that gained the minimum amount to keep the offense on schedule; efficiency measures how much of a north/south runner the player is (Elliott was actually better in this regard with the Patriots); TLOS calculates the average time the running back spent behind the line of scrimmage; and RYOE/Att is the player’s rushing yards over the expectation (RYOE) per attempt.

Elliott’s advanced numbers are strikingly similar from 2022 to 2023, with no significant difference between them. Of course, people have their own opinions on the production Elliott managed in his final season in Dallas, but 876 yards and 12 touchdowns for one half of a running back tandem is pretty darn good. The issue, and ultimately the reason Elliott was released, was that he carried a cap hit of $18.2 million, which was far too much for that kind of production.

For the record, Elliott shouldn’t be expected to to hit 800+ yards or double digit touchdowns in 2024. The offense became decidedly more pass happy with Mike McCarthy calling plays last year, and Elliott is likely not going to see 230+ carries the way he did every single year in Dallas. He’ll might get more than his 184 carries in New England, but it’s unclear how the running back rotation will play out right now.

Given the nearly identical advanced metrics over the last two years, though, it’s easy to project Elliott’s overall impact this year. Assuming the Cowboys use him the same way they did towards the end of the 2022 season, and much the same way New England used him, Elliott figures to be a very reliable short yardage and goal line running back with plenty of reliability in pass protection. For a max of $3 million this year, that’s much easier to stomach than the last time Zeke wore the star.


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