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Thread: Sturm: Is Ezekiel Elliott’s workload a reason to worry about his future?

  1. #1
    One-armed Knife Sharpener Iamtdg's Avatar
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    Sturm: Is Ezekiel Elliott’s workload a reason to worry about his future?

    Is Ezekiel Elliott’s workload a reason to worry about his future?
    By Bob Sturm May 29, 2018 12

    Drafting in the top five allows NFL teams a chance to think about their franchise from 30,000 feet. It provides perspective on how the largest issues are not the present ones. Rather, a top-five pick should be treated as a rare shot at a “generational” talent. In real life, a generation often covers 25-30 years. In the sports world, that number is much lower.

    In the NFL, ‘much lower’ implies the 8-10 year range. Quarterbacks can offer an exception, as the 2004 draft gave the Giants Eli Manning, the Chargers Philip Rivers, and the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger. Those “generations” may be winding down, but this fall will be the players’ 15th in the NFL, and each team appears to still be pleased with its selection.

    Other positions don’t last quite as long, but wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald continues to play on in Arizona and DeAngelo Hall almost made it to 2018 as a cornerback, although he changed his address three times along the way.

    The 2016 Draft boasted the highest pick the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed since 1991 when they selected Russell Maryland first overall. In the buildup to the draft, many of us spent weeks trying to sort through not only the correct players, but also the correct positions. We sought to assure the franchise bought the best long-term investment. Depreciation exists in football, and some positions last a very long time. Others start dropping fast, to a point where once the rookie contract expires (five years for a top-five pick), it might be time to find a replacement.

    That was my biggest issue with taking Ezekiel Elliott when the Cowboys did. For the record, Jalen Ramsey was my preferred target at that spot. But we knew that the Cowboys could get either Joey Bosa or Jalen Ramsey fourth overall (once we learned that Jared Goff and Carson Wentz would go first and second). Of course, I also knew that the Cowboys didn’t share my appraisal at all and were practically telling the world they wanted Zeke well before the announcement. Either they were bluffing or they were taking a running back fourth. As you now know, they weren’t bluffing.

    Elliott is surely one of the best players at his position. From that perspective, the Cowboys did not make a mistake at all. But if we circle back to my “generational” objective to the pick, the true test is whether he is a key factor on the Cowboys’ 2023 roster, too. In a best-case (greedy) scenario, he could also be the man in 2025 at the age of 30.

    This is an impossibly high bar, but we know that elite cornerbacks and elite pass rushers routinely play well past their 30th birthdays. And since the discussion hinged on the short- and long-term effects of Joey Bosa versus Jalen Ramsey versus Ezekiel Elliott, I spend a lot of time thinking about this topic – which is why I wanted to write this piece in the first place.

    Teams have two massive advantages in retaining the players they draft: The ability to negotiate extensions early and the franchise tag. So let’s pivot to this question: “Can this player be the face of my franchise 7 years from now?”

    That is why I found Elliott’s usage in his first two years interesting. He has averaged nearly 25 touches per game (24.9). While that might not make anyone forget Edgerrin James’ all-time record (27.5 touches in his first two seasons) or even the NFL leader the last two years – (Le’Veon Bell, 27.48), it is higher than literally every other player in the National Football League.

    Bell is an interesting study, of course, because he is one of only two running backs since 2010 with over 400 offensive touches (rushing attempts + receptions) in a season. The other is Demarco Murray in 2014 with these same Dallas Cowboys decision-makers. Murray wound up with 449 touches in 2014 and Bell had 406 in 2017. In both cases, whether on or off the record, team officials had suggested they were willing to “run the wheels off of the guy” in a contract year.

    What does that mean? It means that the 2014 Cowboys did not care if the treads fell off Demarco Murray’s tires. They had no intention of keeping him. The same could be said for Bell in Pittsburgh. The Steelers franchised him, they plan to do it again, and they will give him the ball over and over and over again. If the Steelers use up all of Bell’s mileage before his 27th birthday, I can assure you they aren’t the slightest bit concerned about it. It sure doesn’t seem like their front office has any intention of working out a long-term deal.

    Through 25 games, Ezekiel Elliott has 622 touches – a 400-touch-per-year pace. No other team is using their running back that much unless they are clearly not worried about the long-term investment. Is this a problem?

    Let’s discuss the potential flaws in my premise. Here are a few:

    1) 400 touches in a season (25 per game times 16 games) is surely an arbitrary standard. The Curse of 370 is another one that football analysts swear by. That was built on the premise that the toll taken by a 370-carry workload bears heavy consequences.

    Here is a passage from a fine piece of research from Gary Davenport on the matter:

    It’s been that much worse of late. Since 2011 370 touches hasn’t just been a curse. It’s been the kiss of freaking death. The last five backs to hit that benchmark have all missed time the next year and seen their yardage fall by over 37 percent. The average drop for that miserable quintet of ball-carriers has been a staggering 58.4 percent. Over half their production went POOF!

    You may have noticed at this point that Ezekiel Elliott isn’t listed in the table above. That’s because he came up just short of the 370 mark in total touches at 354 during his rookie campaign. But before you take that deep, relieved breath, consider this.

    Elliott failed to hit 370 touches only because the Cowboys sat him in a meaningless Week 17 game at Philadelphia. He was on the field for the team two weeks later in the Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers, though, piling up 123 total yards on 22 touches.

    In other words, he went over for all intents and purposes. Never mind that “Zeke” topped 300 total touches in both 2014 and 2015 while at Ohio State. I’m the biggest Elliott fanboy this side of the Olentangy River. I have a black No. 15 Buckeyes jersey hanging in my closet as I type this. But as an Elliott dynasty owner I also have grave concerns about his fantasy value in the long term if the Cowboys keep riding him like they did in 2016.

    There’s been no indication to date that the Cowboys have any intention of easing up. Quite the opposite, in fact, as team owner Jerry Jones told ESPN’s Todd Archer he’d like to see Elliott become more involved in the passing game. “He really is problematic for defenses in the passing game, and certainly every time we can get him the ball, I feel good about it,” Jones said.

    Regardless, I want to be careful about the number. Elliott was on pace for 400 touches in each of his first two years but only reached 644 overall because of games played (I added in the playoff game in 2016). Emmitt Smith wound up with 679 touches over his first two seasons in 1990-1991 and he certainly seemed to turn out just fine. Should that tell us anything about the future of Ezekiel Elliott? Are the athletes of 2018 and those hitting Emmitt Smith in 1990 similar, or have we evolved in the 27 ensuing years? It appears the entire league is very careful to not run their guys into the ground. Todd Gurley is at 21.4 touches per game, LeSean McCoy 20.3, Melvin Gordon 21.9, and Jordan Howard 18.7. They are the five runners with the next-highest touches per game in 2016-2017. Bell has his own category and Zeke is the only guy even close (although Leonard Fournette’s rookie season of 23.4 might indicate that the Jaguars are following a similar plan). There is little doubt in my mind that without the suspension Elliott would have neared 800, and only three players EVER have done that in the first two years of their career: (Edgerrin James, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Eric Dickerson).



    I am sure some readers believe Elliott is on par with Dickerson, Tomlinson, and James. Maybe he is. But keep in mind that they are the outliers throughout NFL history. Has this high usage claimed promising players after 2-4 years of high mileage? Check with Billy Sims, Joe Cribbs, Errict Rhett, and even Terrell Davis for that answer.

    2) What if the Cowboys took Elliott knowing full well that they were going to follow this Pittsburgh plan, never offering him a 5-year extension?

    If you want to know the truth – and most fans don’t because it reveals that players are merely assets to a team rather than friends or family – you could easily argue that investing heavily in a running back is ill-advised. Under that logic, teams shouldn’t draft one high, but if they do so, they need not be the slightest bit concerned about whether he remains on the roster eight years later. This is a league with short career spans, and with the luxury of the franchise tag and the knowledge that the RB tag is lower than almost every other position on the field, teams can maximize what they receive from the five-year rookie contract and then go year-to-year with the ability to tag their player. In other words, there is almost no research available that would argue that Pittsburgh isn’t playing this perfectly.

    There are 128 players in the NFL that make more money than the highest-valued running back in the sport. Devonta Freeman’s deal totals $41 million and ranks 129th, but even that deal has only $17.2 million in guaranteed money. In other words, when it comes to guaranteed money Ezekiel Elliott himself was the highest-paid RB in the sport until Fournette was drafted the next year. Fournette will have the distinction until Saquon Barkley signs his deal. What does that tell you? Teams pay running backs on their rookie deals and are awfully reluctant to pay them after that. Even if they are the best in the business. And why is that? Because of where we started this conversation. Career spans.

    The Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott over Jalen Ramsey and by all accounts, they would have selected him over Joey Bosa, too. They loved this player and still do. The plan moving forward is to give him the ball and “Feed Zeke” in every situation. As a runner and as a receiver. On first down and third down. He is always the best option.

    There are two options, and the Cowboys will never tell us what they truly believe. In one scenario, the staff believes he is “Emmitt Smith 2.0” and they can use him to the maximum levels, give him a massive extension in 24 months, and see him last well over a decade. In another, the Cowboys will follow their Demarco Murray recipe and simply run him into the ground until they are done with him in 3-5 years (you really cannot franchise tag a player more than twice without the prices getting insane).

    Either way, I admit that this might qualify as prematurely worrying about the team’s plan and maybe even wondering if they have engaged in a long-term discussion about this very topic. But Elliott’s pace is such that it brings to mind coaches who suggest a running back only has so many carries in him. Perhaps that’s a fitting summary for a position that replicates car crashes over and over again.

    The plan remains clear: Build the entire franchise around Ezekiel Elliott and see how far he can carry you. If he can’t get the Cowboys to the promised land, it won’t be because he wasn’t given the rock often enough. Aside from a suspension and a few red-zone playcalls last year, that clearly isn’t a problem.

    The question is whether the Cowboys will shop for another of his kind during the Dak Prescott era.
    2016 DCC LOTY Fantasy Football Champion

  2. #2
    Senior Member Simpleton's Avatar
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    I think Elliott can give us about 7 years of top level play, maybe 8.

    His rookie contract is 5 years, assuming he's still playing at a Pro Bowl level at that point I'd try to re-sign him to a front-loaded 4 year deal that is more or less a 2 year deal that we can easily get out of if need be.

    Anybody who assumes Prescott is going to be here for 10+ years is an idiot if they don't think we're going to need to find another workhorse RB at some point during his era.

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    Senior Member deadrise's Avatar
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    With very rare exceptions, I can't imagine any NFL team that has a horizon that goes out more than three or four years.

    If you get a back like Elliot, you squeeze every yard you can out of him for as long as you can, which is not that long.

    He's entering his third year. If he's still performing at the same level three years from now it would be a miracle.

  5. #4
    Senior Member mschmidt64's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by deadrise View Post
    With very rare exceptions, I can't imagine any NFL team that has a horizon that goes out more than three or four years.

    If you get a back like Elliot, you squeeze every yard you can out of him for as long as you can, which is not that long.

    He's entering his third year. If he's still performing at the same level three years from now it would be a miracle.
    And ultimately that is what sucks about spending the 4th overall pick on a RB.

    No 10 year careers.

    The only thing worse is spending that kind of pick on a DB.

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  7. #5
    Senior Member p1_'s Avatar
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    Think back to how long Emmitt lasted, and its a miracle.
    Leading in defensive player suspensions, 5 years and counting

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    Senior Member deadrise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mschmidt64 View Post
    And ultimately that is what sucks about spending the 4th overall pick on a RB.

    No 10 year careers.

    The only thing worse is spending that kind of pick on a DB.
    Between free agency, salary caps, injuries and general wear and tear, how realistic is it to expect any NFL career to span 10 years, let alone 10 years with the same team?

  9. #7
    Senior Member Cowboysrock55's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by deadrise View Post
    Between free agency, salary caps, injuries and general wear and tear, how realistic is it to expect any NFL career to span 10 years, let alone 10 years with the same team?
    Depends on the position. QB and Oline yes I think it's very possible. As long as it's a good player to start with. RB, WR, and corner on the other hand? Not very likely at all.

  10. #8
    Senior Member deadrise's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cowboysrock55 View Post
    Depends on the position. QB and Oline yes I think it's very possible. As long as it's a good player to start with. RB, WR, and corner on the other hand? Not very likely at all.

    Going back over the last 10 years, how many teams have had the same QB for 10 years? Without looking I'll take a guess . . . umm . . . nine? E. Manning, P. Manning, Rothlisberger, Brady, Rivers, Brees, Rodgers, Romo?

    So even a lucky team has maybe half-a-dozen players they count on for anywhere close to 10 years. The point being that drafting a player and believing that player will be around for 10 years is absurd.

  11. #9
    Senior Member pdom's Avatar
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    Name the only Cowboy left on the roster to have played in Texas Stadium and under BP.

  12. #10
    Senior Member mschmidt64's Avatar
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    LP Ladoceur.

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