Ezekiel Elliott has been suspended for six games. Yes, yes, there will be plenty still to come on this as we get leaks and sources saying Jerry Jones is angry and plenty of drama. But let’s talk some fantasy football.
Where do you draft Ezekiel Elliott now? Last month, I first took a look at this, but that was under the assumption of a smaller suspension. This suspension is sizable.
Before I get to my thoughts, here’s what Matthew Berry said–and I think it’s fair to say that Berry has the potential to drive the market on something like this.
I disagree with where Berry ends up here. You can’t just subtract out the number of points per game and say that Ezekiel Elliott is now projected to be RB19.
My quick TL;DR answer is that Elliott should still go before the middle of the second round. Read further if you want to dig into the why.
I’ve been doing some experimenting with win probability added research on fantasy football as I work toward my season projections. Intuitively, I think we apply some of this in our rankings when we take a risk on “sleepers,” and we certainly apply it in weekly lineup setting and daily fantasy.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that players who accumulate the same number of points in fewer games are more valuable. This is because you have the option of starting other people. You have more roster spots than starters. When your starter is on the bye week, you don’t take a zero (unless you are forgetful or have given up). Elliott may end the season at RB19. If he does so, he will be far more valuable than the other backs around him in raw point totals.
I took research from my long-time league and overall point totals to determine win probability based on scoring a certain number of points. The relationship of fantasy points to wins is mostly linear, except at the extreme ends. A common sense way of saying that is every point is equally valuable in making it more likely you win. (At the low and high extremes, additional points don’t make much difference, but we’ll assume most of us are operating closer to the vast middle ground with our typical lineup, and aren’t starting complete scrubs, or the best three players at each position).
Using that research, I can tell you that David Johnson, the MVP of Fantasy last year, was worth about 2.5 wins above replacement starter (dependent on scoring system and league size, slightly, of course). Each week, he was worth a 15.5% increase in win percentage. An otherwise average team should have won 65.5% of games in 2017 with Johnson on the roster.
The 19th RB, let’s say Lamar Miller, meanwhile had 0.6 wins above replacement starter. An otherwise average team would be expected to win 53.8% of games with Lamar Miller on the roster. It would basically take four Miller-type player values to match David Johnson being paired with three replacement starters.
So let’s turn this back to Ezekiel Elliott and the current issue of where to value him. (Going forward, I’m going to use FanDuel points here, since it is similar to PPR scoring, and easy for me to find reliable and convenient data on Pro-Football-Reference.com).
Elliott was at almost 2.0 wins above replacement a year ago, at 13.1% increase per week.
If you think he’s likely to duplicate those numbers, let’s run through where you should value him. I’ll submit to you that T.J. Yeldon was the equivalent of a replacement starter a year ago. He averaged 7.5 FD points. A team of Carson Wentz, Yeldon and Derrick Henry, and Quincy Enunwa, Tavon Austin and Jeremy Kerley, with Dwayne Allen at TE would have lost you pretty much every week. So let’s say that 7.5 points is the replacement value you’ll get when Ezekiel Elliott is out. We also know that, on average, running backs don’t play in 100% of the eligible games. Elliott could get hurt at some point upon returning.
So let’s project eight games (90% participation of eligible games) of Elliott and eight with a replacement starter (six to suspension, one for bye week, one for injury allocation). That equates to a expected wins of +1.05.
If we limit it to the first 13 weeks, we get +0.71 wins added.
How do those numbers compare to other running backs. Well, you don’t want to put him in the RB19 range or RB16 range. Here are the expected wins for other running backs (also assuming last year’s productivity and 90% participation/10% attrition to injury).
You have to make the playoffs to win the playoffs, but you also have to have a good squad for the playoffs to increase your odds of taking home the title. Depending on how many teams make the playoffs, you are going to want to focus on the 13 week total (for limited playoffs) or the 16 week total (for leagues where 50% or more make it).
But either way, Elliott + replacement falls toward the center (in the 16-week expectation) or bottom end (in the regular season expectation) of the Freeman/Ajayi/Howard/Murray tier of backs. You are giving away points if you let him slip past that.
One thing I haven’t discussed until now is the roster spot cost. This has some validity. Of course, I’m already using replacement starter estimates, but losing a roster spot does reduce flexibility. Taking a “zero” in a lineup slot at running back or flex is worth about -7.5% win probability. But then again, that’s absolute worst case. I’d estimate (though it’s a project for future research) that carrying an injured player is worth about -2% win probability per week in opportunity cost, heavily dependent on how deep and how many bench spots you can carry.
But if you want to knock an extra -.15 wins off for roster spot cost, Elliott is still sufficiently ahead of the next tier of backs and should be a second round value. (Ajayi, Howard and Murray are going in the early second round on average).
On the flip side, if you are confident in your abilities, you can start someone above replacement level in Elliott’s spot until he returns. The clear obvious choice here is Darren McFadden. McFadden should provide positive value when starting for Dallas. DeAngelo Williams was worth about 0.2 wins in the three weeks that Le'Veon Bell was out to suspension at the start of last year. If McFadden could match that kind of backup production, he would add about +0.4 wins. That would have ranked 24th a year ago at the position (Ahead of starters like Jonathan Stewart and Terrance West who played more games as a starter).
McFadden is currently RB52, but that should change dramatically, and he is more valuable to the Elliott owner. If I told you right now that you could trade a mid-2nd and a 6th or 7th round pick to get a mid-1st, would you do it? Based on history, the answer is yes, yes, and hell yes. Well, that’s basically the choice you may have. Commit to taking McFadden there, and get Elliott, and turn it into an early first round pick and profit.