Fantasy Matchups: Ezekiel Elliott vs Saquon Barkley

by Andy Goddard @godsy1985

With Todd Gurley having an injury plagued end to the 2018 season, people are rightly reluctant to draft the LA Rams running back with the first pick. With the running back position being so vital to fantasy teams, is there a better option if you are lucky enough to get the number 1 pick?

Most fantasy mock drafts have both Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley being claimed in the first two picks but who, out of the two, should you pick? Now, before we proceed, I am well aware of the holdout potential that us fantasy owners are currently having to monitor with Zeke, but, let’s move forward assuming Jerry Jones and co. will do the right thing and sign him to a deserved contract before week 1 commences.

Ezekiel Elliott – Running Back, Dallas Cowboys

Since entering the league in 2016, Elliott has played nearly 90 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps and has handled over 80 percent of the carries when active. ‘Zeke’ carried for 1,434 yards in the 2018 season on 304 attempts, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He also caught 77 passes (on 94 targets) for 567 yards scoring a combined 9 touchdowns.

A true ‘3 down back,’ he is a durable workhorse and running behind one the best offensive lines in football, so you know there will be production. Zeke is always dangerous after the catch on screens and dump offs but with his improvement as a wide receiver, look for him to cause even more problems for opposition defences.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Ron Jenkins

The return of Jason Witten may take away some of his targets, but based on last years’ stats, his passing upside still outweighs other top tier running backs. Having already demonstrated tackle-breaking and big-play ability its no wonder Zeke is anticipated to be picked first or second. 

The Cowboys’ are changing their offense for the 2019 season by promoting Kellen Moore to offensive coordinator. This doesn’t mean any less of Zeke, who is the centrepiece of the offense. It could actually mean more scoring opportunities but there is uncertainty about what the ‘Moore’ offensive scheme will look like.  

There are a few concerns though. Along with the holdout situation, Zeke has already faced suspension during the 2017 season and after an altercation at a Las Vegas music festival in May 2019, where he shoved a security guard. Zeke was lucky to avoid another suspension.

That was a little reminder that he is one bad decision away form being a suspension candidate once again.

Dallas also appear reluctant to run Elliott near the goal line. In fact, he ranked just 17th last season for runs inside the 5 yard line with his 10 carries. Despite that, he did rank 8th overall for rush attempts in the red zone with 39 carries. Elliott has also fumbled the ball 12 times in his career. Although only three of these have led to the ball being lost, in comparison, Barkley didn’t fumble once during his rookie year.  

Other running backs may get more opportunities for touchdowns near to the goal line but Zeke is projected to yet again lead the league in carries, and with his improvements in the receiving game, Elliott is a solid number 1 pick for any fantasy owner! 

Projected Fantasy Stats 2019 

Carries Yards Average TD  Receptions Yards TD Fantasy Points 
312  1386  4.4  10  74  581  271.5 

Saquon Barkley – Running Back, New York Giants

The 2018 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year regularly torched defenses as both a runner and receiver last season. Barkley had a league-high 2,028 yards from scrimmage and a total of 15 touchdowns justifying his pick at number 2 in the 2018 NFL draft. 

‘Big Blue’ could have picked a much needed quarterback but went with the Penn State man and his performances last season showed it was the right decision.  

Like Elliott, Barkley is a workhorse clocking up 261 carries and 119 targets. He was on the field for 83 percent of the Giants’ snaps and handled 75 percent of the handoffs.

Barkley was the NFL leader in broken tackles in 2018 but his domination is more than just this single ability. He had 16 rushes of 20 plus yards during his rookie year (which is tied for fifth most since 2000) and with his 91 receptions, Saquon was one of just six running backs who lead their teams in catches last season.  

Photo Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

However, the Giants’ do have their problems – and it starts at Quarterback. Eli Manning has never been known as a ‘dual threat’ quarterback but the 38 year old has been increasingly immobile resulting in a career worst 7.5% sack rate in 2018.

He has also lost the biggest weapon to throw the ball deep downfield since losing Odell Beckham Jr. Manning has gone from averaging 22.6 points per game to just 18.6 last season when without Beckham, also falling from 7.1 yards per attempt to 6.4.

This means that opposing teams can load the box, expecting the run or short pass which certainly doesn’t help Barkley. 

This could also work as an advantage for Barkley as he is guaranteed touches. Barring any injury, he will carry the ball around 300 times during the 2019 season and although Manning’s stats may have dropped off with OBJ’s absence, during the final four weeks of the season this made little difference to Barkley as he still ranked in the top 5 running backs during this time.  

The main concern for Barkley is the state of the Giants’ offensive line. It was ranked 29th in the league during the 2018 season and whilst the addition of guard Kevin Zeitler (from the Browns) will be a minor boost, the line still looks…..urgh! 

Projected Fantasy Stats 2019 

Carries Yards Average TD  Receptions Yards TD Fantasy Points 
297  1363  4.6  10  86  698  285.8 

So who to pick with the 1.01 in PPR? 

Whether you pick Elliott or Barkley at number 1, you are going to get a three down workhorse who will rack up the fantasy points for your team.

If I had to pick one (and I suppose that’s the point of this!), I would go with Barkley. Although he is playing behind a poor offensive line and with an ageing quarterback I just feel that his big play ability alongside his use as Manning’s primary receiver will see him deliver more often.

Zeke also worries me with suspension issues and isn’t as productive in the receiving game. We also do not know how the new Cowboys’ offensive coordinator will look to utilise him. 

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