Darth Goodell strikes again.
The commish lightsabered Cowboys RB Ezekiel Elliott with a 6-game suspension on Friday morning. That’s a harsher punishment than most expected for a guy who hasn’t actually been charged with any crime.
At least we have clarity on the situation now. (Unless, of course, Elliott’s appeal runs into the regular season.)
For now, though, fantasy owners should assume that Elliott is out for the first 6 games. What’s that do to his fantasy value? When should you consider drafting him? And how do we handle Darren McFadden?
Let’s start with what to expect from Elliott over those final 10 games.
We never expected him to match last year’s 5.1 yards per carry. That’s a mark only 7 other RBs have hit while carrying 250+ times over the past 10 seasons. Natural regression is a strong bet to bite Zeke in 2017.
He also lost 2 starters from last year’s dominant offensive line: LG Ronald Leary and RT Doug Free. It’s fair to expect that unit to take at least a slight step back in 2017.
On the plus side, Elliott remains an elite talent who probably hasn’t even reached his peak yet at 22 years old. We have him projected to average a still-strong 4.6 yards per carry this season. As well as a workhorse-y 19.8 carries per game.
We’re also banking on Elliott’s passing-game role and production improving in his 2nd season. He was efficient as a rookie, hauling in 82.1% of his targets and averaging 11.3 yards per catch. Elliott ranked 3rd in yards per target among 43 RBs who saw 30+ looks.
But he finished just 32nd at his position with 39 targets — or 2.6 per game. We’re projecting that mark to climb to 3.7 this season. And for Elliott’s receptions per game to rise from 2.1 to 2.7.
All told, we have Elliott for 16.11 non-PPR points and 18.81 PPR points per game — both 3rd among RBs behind only David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell.
You’re getting an elite RB1 for the final 10 games (9 in most fantasy leagues) if you draft Elliott.
But just how much should we dock Elliott for those 6 lost games?
A lot of folks make the mistake of factoring in a goose egg for those 6 weeks. That’s not how it works. Elliott isn’t posting a 0 in your starting lineup when he’s suspended. You’ll have a replacement in there.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re using a mid-level RB4 in Zeke’s place. The 42nd-ranked PPR RB (a mid-level RB4) has averaged 9.57 points per game over the last 3 seasons.
Take 9.57 points for 6 games, Elliott’s projected 18.81 for 10 games, and you get 245.52 total PPR points. That would have ranked 8th among RBs last year.
That’s a better representation of Zeke’s new value than just knocking 6 games’ worth of numbers from his projection.
And that’s assuming you only get mid-level RB4 production in his place. You can certainly do better if you fortify your RB corps with earlier picks after drafting Elliott.
You can probably do much better simply by drafting Darren McFadden. We’ll see how high his ADP rises, but he made a big move up the RB Rankings.
McFadden turns 30 later this month and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season after missing the first 13 games with a fractured elbow.
The year prior, though, he ripped off 4.6 yards per carry on 239 totes as Dallas’ lead back. He added 40 catches to finish 13th among RBs in PPR points — despite flukily scoring just 3 TDs.
So that’s the ceiling on McFadden over the first 6 games. Of course, he’s 2 years older now, the offensive line probably won’t be as good and he’ll need to fend off Alfred Morris. He seems like a good bet to accomplish that last task considering Morris mustered just 3.5 yards per carry last year and was bandied about as a trade or cut candidate earlier this offseason.
Assuming McFadden does win the lead job, he’ll face a tough schedule. Dallas’ first 6 games come against the Giants, Broncos, Cardinals, Rams, Packers and 49ers. Those first 5 opponents all ranked 18th or better in PPR points allowed to RBs last year. 3 of them finished top 5. That final matchup against the 49ers is a good one: No team coughed up more points to RBs in 2016.
McFadden will boast RB1 potential for that 49ers game but should be viewed as more of a mid- or low-end RB2 over the first 5. He’ll also, of course, retain handcuff appeal the rest of the way in case of another off-field slip up or injury for Elliott.