A look at the final results of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s 2020 season reveals a disappointing campaign – maybe even evidence of a step lost due to the heavy volume he’s carried since the start of his career. Zeke missed only one start, yet still failed to reach 1,000 rushing and make the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career (barring an injury-shortened 2017).

However, much of Elliott’s struggles can be attributed to the Cowboys offensive personnel – or lack thereof. Several key starters, including Cowboys franchise quarterback Dak Prescott, missed the bulk of the year due to injury. Through Week 5, the week that Prescott when down with an injury, Elliott was fantasy’s RB2 in PPR scoring.

Heading into the 2021 NFL season, can Zeke return to form with a healthy offense? Let’s take a look.

2020 Fantasy Statistics

Ezekiel Elliott’s production in pretty much all facets of his game took a dive in 2020. On 244 rushing attempts, he ran for 979 yards and 6 touchdowns, good for a career-low 4.0 yards per carry. Through the air, he caught 52 passes on 71 targets and finished with 338 receiving yards. The one constant for Zeke last year was his involvement in the passing game, as his high volume through the air still allowed him a top-12 finish, regardless of format.

In the five games that he played with Dak Prescott, Elliott averaged 22.3 PPR points per game, as well as demonstrating his stellar floor, as he never scored below 17.8 points. Following Prescott’s injury, however, he scored less than 10 points in 5 of his last 10 games. He didn’t have a very high ceiling either, as he didn’t finish with a 20 point game the rest of the way.

Though Elliott’s actual performance on a per carry basis did take a dive after Prescott got hurt, it wouldn’t be wise to put too much stock into that poor stretch of games. He has been excellent during every other portion of his career, having never played a season before in which his per game averages were worse than a 1,350+ yard full season.

One note of concern for Zeke last year was holding onto the ball. He had 6 fumbles last year, which was the most for any non-QB last year. Elliott also had 5 and 6 fumbles in 2016 and 2018, respectively, so that’s something to keep an eye on in the early going of 2021.

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2021 Fantasy Projections

As the Cowboys head into the upcoming season with a healthy offense, look for Zeke to bounce back in a big way. They are one of the most explosive crews in all of football, and Ezekiel Elliott is too damn good at football to continue last year’s performance, both in fantasy and actuality.

Many of the arguments against Elliott include his increased age and mileage, the emergence of Tony Pollard as a viable No. 2 threat, and Dak’s uncertain performance as he comes back from injury. However, Zeke will only be turning 26 this season, he led all running backs in both total snaps and passing by a good margin last year with 777 and 499, respectively, and the Cowboys also will have Pro Bowl linemen Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’el Collins all returning from injury. If you think that that kind of opportunity combined with the return of the most fearsome offensive line in the league won’t mean big production from Elliott, you need to gain some perspective.

Not only does the return of key starters mean more running lanes for Elliott, but it will also mean more opportunities to score. Dallas’ lethargic offense kept them from getting down the field most weeks, and when they did get down the field, opposing defenses keyed in on the run. He only scored 8 touchdowns last year, a career low, but you should look for him to reenter the double digits in 2021.

The Dallas defense profiles to be poor once again as well, so both blowouts and back-and-forth affairs will mean lots of chances for explosive plays. These kinds of games were the catalysts for Elliott’s early-season success this year.

Rank at Position

Zeke isn’t the flashiest name at the top of fantasy drafts in 2021, but he is definitely one of the safest. As of August 5th, he’s being drafted on ESPN Fantasy at an ADP of 8 (RB6). Out of the 5 running backs going ahead of him, only Derrick Henry can compete with Elliott’s track record of staying on the field, and none rival his consistent, year-to-year performance as an elite RB1.

Though Christian McCaffrey, Henry, Alvin Kamara, and Dalvin Cook all have easily justifiable cases for their top-5 ADP, it’s curious as to why Zeke has fallen out of top-5 status. With clear workhorse status and a strong history of per-carry ratios, look for Ezekiel Elliott in the middle of the first round to be a mid-to-high tier RB.