When the Cowboys took Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth pick in last month’s NFL draft, the move incited plenty of conversations — about positional value, about the structure of Dallas’s roster, and about whether Jerry Jones was once again calling the shots in the war room. For my friend Ryan and I, though, the selection sparked a discussion about fantasy football, as these things often tend to do.
Since 2011, our keeper league with high school friends has included a three-round rookie draft. After Elliott landed on the team with the NFL’s best offensive line, the question was raised if there had ever been a clearer choice for that draft’s no. 1 pick. We quickly agreed no, there hadn’t been, and that prompted me to take things a step further: Is Elliott — the former Ohio State star ranked among the top-five running backs on every preseason list available — the most sought-after rookie in fantasy football history?
To answer that, I started a search dating back to 1991, encompassing a 25-year period that begins with the early stages of fantasy sports popularity. So, while the Rams’ Eric Dickerson recorded the best fantasy season of any rookie non-quarterback (1,808 rushing yards, 20 total touchdowns, and a crazy 328.2 points*), he wasn’t included in this exercise, because no one compiled preseason fantasy rankings in ’83.
*All historical fantasy football data comes from Pro-Football-Reference.
One of my first takeaways was that the most hyped fantasy rookie ever likely wasn’t a quarterback, as my research served as a reminder of just how new the trend of early-career QB production is. The top-five fantasy seasons for rookie quarterbacks have all come since 2011: Cam Newton (’11), Robert Griffin III (’12), Russell Wilson (’12), Andrew Luck (’12), and Jameis Winston (’15). Newton’s 368.3 points during his rookie year were the third most among quarterbacks that season, but no one predicted he would have that type of immediate success. ESPN ranked Newton no. 29 at his position in the ’11 preseason, one spot ahead of fantasy stalwart Tarvaris Jackson; Yahoo slotted Newton at no. 26, tied with perennial touchdown machine Jason Campbell.
Preseason expectations also cast doubt on fantasy’s top-two rookie wide receivers of all time, keeping Randy Moss and Odell Beckham Jr. out of contention for this crown. Moss played like a crazed pterodactyl in 1998, tallying 1,313 yards with 17 touchdowns (235.7 fantasy points), but he didn’t crack the top 25 of any preseason list I found. Beckham, who missed the first four games of ’14 with a hamstring injury before averaging 17.0 points from Weeks 5 through 17, went about 70 receivers into a typical draft; those who snagged him at all had to botch nearly every other pick to avoid winning their leagues.
That left running backs, where 26 rookies have finished among the top 10 at the position since 1991, with 12 sneaking into the top five. I figured the best guy to use as a basis for comparison would be Adrian Peterson, who ran for 1,341 yards with 12 touchdowns in 2007 to finish fourth in fantasy scoring (234.9 points) among running backs. But I was shocked to learn he was no higher than no. 23 (Yahoo) and as low as no. 37 (ESPN) in the preseason rankings. It’s easy to say now, but we should have known that Peterson, who was being flagged as an injury risk after his college career at Oklahoma, didn’t deserve to be ranked below Cedric Benson.
Last year, coming off a torn ACL, Todd Gurley snuck into the top 20 of most preseason fantasy rankings. He was the latest back to be labeled as the best since Peterson, but a player who maintained that status before him actually had loftier rookie-season expectations. Yahoo listed Trent Richardson as its seventh-rated back in 2012, and, before anyone loses their mind over that, know that the projection wasn’t far off: Richardson finished ninth in scoring at the position that year, ahead of Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Frank Gore.
The backs who did finish in the top five as rookies were a mix of first-round fantasy studs (Marshall Faulk, Fred Taylor, and Curtis Martin) and mid-round gems (Forte, Mike Anderson, and Alfred Morris). Still, looking at rankings that go back to the mid-1990s, even highly drafted guys weren’t expected to do much in their debuts. Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne checked in at no. 14 in The Dallas Morning News’s rankings in 2000; fellow Heisman winner Eddie George was ranked no. 21 by the same paper in 1996; and Warrick Dunn was no. 24 on The Newark Star-Ledger’s list in ’97.
Among all possible contenders, I figured only one might match Elliott’s level of preseason hype. Edgerrin James, like Elliott, was the fourth pick in the NFL draft. Even if he hadn’t joined a Colts franchise featuring a behemoth offensive line, he still would have walked onto a roster that had Peyton Manning and recently got two picks from the Rams in exchange for Faulk.
James emerged as a fantasy monster in 1999, racking up 307.9 points to finish just seven behind Faulk among running backs that year, and only 20.3 behind the total that Dickerson put up in his superhuman ’83 campaign. But even with the signs pointing to Edge’s potential breakout, the preseason ranks weren’t bullish on him. In the Fantasy Football Index expert poll that season, James was ranked no. 17 among running backs, with no pundit slotting him higher than no. 7. Preview Sports Fantasy Football had James at no. 20, and John Benson’s Fantasy Football Preview put him at no. 13. (Big thanks to noted fantasy historian Tristan Cockcroft for that info.)
All of which is to say: The fantasy expectations facing Elliott this year are unprecedented for a rookie. With the Cowboys line shaping up to be better than ever this fall (and with DeMarco Murray’s 1,845-yard, 13-touchdown 2014 campaign fresh in mind), it’s hard to throw water on anyone who envisions a crazy season for an undeniably gifted back. But the best fantasy rookie season of all time is a lot to ask of anyone.
This piece originally appeared on the Ringer Facebook page on May 25, 2016.