What the stats say about Ezekiel Elliott and the Cowboys adopting a ‘feed Zeke’ approach in 2024

After plenty of speculation following his initial departure from the team, the Dallas Cowboys and their former running back, Ezekiel Elliott, agreed to reunite. The news of Elliott’s return to Dallas is no shock to many, considering that the team has showered effusive praise on Elliott several times during his time away. Elliott spent one season with the New England Patriots, rushing for 642 yards in 17 games. Elliott’s contract was the reason for the initial release from Dallas, and it is now a team-friendly one-year contract with a maximum value of $3M.

Though some see both sides coming to terms as a happy homecoming, there is the question of why Dallas needed to turn back to Ezekiel Elliott in the first place? For starters, the Cowboys backfield is in desperate need of viable options. Elliott’s stand-in in 2023, Tony Pollard, is now playing for the Tennessee Titans, and the options on the roster are woefully inexperienced. Rico Dowdle, though talented, has yet to show that he’s ready to be a lead back. 2023 draft pick Deuce Vaughn impressed in the preseason before underwhelming in the regular season. After Dallas passed on drafting a running back in the draft, the backfield is there for Elliott to reclaim.

However, bringing Elliott back in any capacity is a risky move because of the front office’s insistence on relying on Elliott. The salary isn’t a factor in this thinking as Jerry Jones has stated that he feels Elliott is still a starter in the NFL. The concern is with his advanced mileage as a runner and him nearing his age 30 season. Is it wise for the Cowboys to count on Elliott as they have done in the past? Remember, at the end of his first stint in Dallas, Elliott appeared to lack the explosiveness and elusiveness that made him an All-Pro. Let’s assess Elliott’s time spent in New England and see how much Dallas should lean on Elliott this season.

To begin the season, Elliott served as a reserve runner, working on a committee with New England’s Rhamondre Stevenson. In Week 13, Stevenson would suffer a significant ankle injury during the Patriots game versus the Los Angeles Chargers. That opened the door for Elliott to take control of the rushing attack. The question is, how much of Elliott is too much for the Cowboy’s offense? Here are the numbers for Elliott’s sustainability and a prediction of his output for this season.

If the Cowboys intend to make Elliott a prominent part of their offense, let’s examine Elliott’s effectiveness after his 10th carry.

Elliott had nine games in 2023 with more than 10 carries in a game, with the most being against the Pittsburgh Steelers. (22 total carries for 68 yards) His most effective game after his tenth carry was against the Jets, where he ran for 5.3 yards an attempt once he reached the threshold. Elliott’s meager production as a whole is underwhelming, but it’s all the more deflating when much of the idea of Elliott centers around the concept that he gets stronger as the game goes on. Elliott’s efficiency is the same throughout the game and is not inspiring. Then you have to account for his lack of explosive playmaking. Elliott’s longest play from scrimmage this past season was 23 yards.

The advanced statistics aren’t in Elliott’s favor either.

Elliott’s ability to make the most of his carries isn’t the same, as evidenced by his True Yards Per Carry. His Juke Rate and Evaded Tackle percentages further speak to the elusiveness Elliott no longer has.

A glimmer of hope is in the passing game. Per playerprolfiler.com, Elliott was 12th among running backs with 51 receptions out of the backfield. He won’t run a diverse route tree but can still be a decent safety valve over the middle of the field, averaging 6.1 yards per reception. Furthermore, when you look at the success rate, meaning successful rush gains at least 40% of the yards required on 1st down, 60% of the yards required on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd or 4th down, and his yards after contact, it’s not bad.

Elliott had a success rate of 45% last season, which is only a slight drop from his time in Dallas. Also, he averaged nearly two yards after contact, which again falls close to his averages in his first stint with the Cowboys. The biggest concern with Elliott is that he averages one whole yard less before contact than he did in 2018, his second All-Pro season. That, coupled with his -55 Expected points added, paints a picture of a runner of a locomotive that takes a while to hit full speed, and when it gets there, isn’t very fast, but it is moderately powerful enough to move through obstacles in its path.

The answer to how much the Cowboys should “Feed Zeke” is inconclusive. He’s not any different throughout the game, and his baseline statistics are essentially the same throughout the entire game. His positives, which also feature adequate pass protection, practically cancel out the negatives, if not leave him a shade below average in terms of total impact.

With such an unproven backfield and affinity from the ownership, Elliott is likely to lead the Cowboys backfield again. Taking the average amount of carries Elliott had once he took over the lead role for New England and his yards per attempt, that makes 14 carries per game averaging for a total of 833 rushing yards. The Cowboys could do better but Elliott’s standing with the team and his experience above the competition suggests Dallas will get a so-so Elliott to lead the team in rushing.


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