Ezekiel Elliott is a MVP candidate once again

Dallas Cowboys

The Dallas Cowboys are starved for playmakers offensively, but Ezekiel Elliott is pulling his weight and then some through the first four games.

After the 2016 season, you could have made the case that Ezekiel Elliott was the most valuable non-quarterback offensive player in the NFL.  As a rookie, Elliott totaled 1,994 total yards in 15 games and finished third in MVP voting, just behind Matt Ryan and Tom Brady. Dallas went 13-2 that season with Elliott on the field as he helped lead the Cowboys to the playoffs and the No.1 seed.

But after a 2017 season that was clouded with off the field issues, the public opinion of Elliott seemed to change. His production was still good (1,252 yards in 10 games), but for whatever reason, he was no longer thought of as the same game-changing player. Was it due to his six-game suspension? An out-of-sight, out-of-mind type of ordeal? Or was he just not the same player we saw in 2016?

I even had my doubts. Heading into the 2018 season, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Elliott. Was he still that same guy that could take over games single-handedly? In 2017, there were only two times where I can say he looked dominant; against the San Francisco 49ers and against the Redskins in Washington. Outside of those two games, there were just a lot of solid, but unspectacular performances.

However, Elliott’s performance on Sunday against the Lions was a reminder of just how special he is and can be.

Over the last several weeks, even dating back to 2017, the Cowboys’ offense has struggled. Before Sunday, Dallas hadn’t thrown the ball for more than 185 yards in five straight games. In those five games, the Cowboys’ offense was averaging just 12 points a game. It was arguably one of the worst offenses in the NFL, despite Elliott being on the field for each game.

In a crucial NFC contest, the Cowboys needed Elliott to be a star and he was exactly that. Elliott touched the ball 29 times and totaled 240 yards. Elliott was able to dominate even while dealing with an ankle injury as well as bursitis in his knee, according to the team’s vice president in Stephen Jones. Let’s take a look at Elliott’s warrior-like performance against the Lions.

But before we begin, here are Elliott’s rushing and receiving charts, courtesy of the NFL’s Next Gen Stats. As you will notice, Elliott isn’t confined to just one spot on the field in both the rushing and receiving game. He works the entire field when he is in the game.

One of the things that makes Elliott an outstanding talent is that he really has no weaknesses. There is nothing on the football field that he can’t do at a high level. But to me, his most impressive trait is his balance. It’s amazing at how he can cut, jump and leap over defenders without losing speed or ever lose is balance. Take a look at this 41-yard run by Elliott and how he was able to get into the clear after avoiding defenders near the line of scrimmage.

We know about his speed and his vision. But, the one thing that has always separated Elliott from the rest of the running backs in the league is his physical nature. He’s not afraid to lower his shoulder and run over a defensive back if need be. It sounds cliche, but these are the type of runs and plays that give life to an offense. When you have a running back who welcomes contact, it gives the offense an identity. Take a look at this run by Elliott in the second quarter where he does just that.

When Elliott gets a head of steam and starts running downhill, he’s awfully hard to stop. If you don’t go low, Elliott has the upper-body strength to rip off tackles. But if you do go low to stop him, you are on steamroll alert and that’s exactly what happened here.

While we are accustomed to Elliott dominating on the ground, it was actually his performance in the receiving game that swung this matchup. He caught four passes for 88 yards, two of which completely changed the momentum of the game. Let’s look at both of those receptions.

Elliott is phenomenal in the screen game. He now has three career touchdowns on screens, all of which have come from at least 35 yards out. He just has a great feel for how to set up his blockers, but also knows the exact moment when he needs to turn on the jets. There is a lot of timing that goes into these type of plays and you could make the case that no player in the league is a better screen player than Elliott.

While the touchdown was impressive, Elliott saved his best for last. After being criticized for not being used more in the passing game, Prescott decided to throw to Elliott on the single most important play of the game. Prescott found Elliott down the field against a linebacker and dropped a dime to his star running back. But give credit to Elliott too as he tracked the ball in the air like a receiver.

Whether you agree with or not, Elliott is the star of the Cowboys’ offense. This team relies on him to be a superstar each and every week. Elliott is the same player we saw in 2016 and 2017. Whatever you thought of him then, should continue to be your opinion now.

In fact, he may even be a little better player now than he was as a rookie because he understands the nuances of the game. He’s become a student of the game rather than someone who is just naturally gifted. Elliott is off to his hottest start of the season, compiling well over 500 yards through the team’s first four games:

Dallas will go as far as Elliott will take them. He still may be one of the most important offensive players in the league, excluding quarterbacks. He’s just that talented. If Elliott can continue to produce at this level, he will be considered an MVP candidate and for good reason.

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