Cowboys schedule favors Ezekiel Elliott reaching 2,000 yards
Ezekiel Elliott has quite a bit going for him as he enters his third NFL season. He has a rejuvenated offensive line that figures to be better than ever with the addition of Connor Williams as the No. 50 overall pick. He is aging towards his prime, and any runner who can gain 1,631 yards on the ground as a rookie likely has a tantalizing prime ahead of him. This season is set to be his revenge tour after a protracted court battle with the NFL ultimately led to him being suspended for six games last season. But if there is one single factor that points towards an incredible season, it's this: the Cowboys have a very easy schedule in terms of run-defenses. It is so easy that 2,000 yards should not be out of the question.
The Cowboys have three very difficult opponents on their schedule from a run-defense perspective. That would be the No. 1 run defense in the NFL last season, the Philadelphia Eagles, who they face twice, along with the No. 3 Carolina Panthers and the No. 4 Tennessee Titans. In two of those cases, though, the schedule puts Elliott in a position to have a big game. The Cowboys face the Panthers in Week 1, when they will be completely rested after sitting their starters in the final week of the preseason. They will face the Titans after their bye week, giving Elliott extra time to recover from the beginning of the season. When the Cowboys face their stiffest tests in terms of run-defense, they will have a fully-rested Elliott.
The rest of the schedule looks far more promising. The next best run-defense that the Cowboys face is the No. 9 Atlanta Falcons, who lost their best run-defender in nose tackle Dontari Poe to free agency. After that, there are only two more above average run-defenses on the schedule: the No. 13 Houston Texans, who have never had their two best defensive players in J.J. Watt and JaDeveon Clowney healthy at the same time, and the No. 16 New Orleans Saints, who played from ahead so often last season that their total rushing yards allowed were skewed. While they were No. 16 in rushing yards allowed, they were tied for 27th in yards per carry allowed at 4.4. If the Cowboys can contain New Orleans' offense, Elliott will have ample opportunity to shred the Saints on the ground.
And after that? The schedule just looks better and better. Elliott has played the No. 17 Green Bay Packers three times and averaged over 132 yards per game on the ground in those matchups (which equates to a 2,122 yard pace over 16 games). The No. 18 ranked Detroit Lions lost nose tackle Haloti Ngata. The No. 19 ranked Seattle Seahawks lost Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Sheldon Richardson. The No. 21 ranked Jacksonville Jaguars had one of the best total defenses in football, but that was due to their incredible pass-defense. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished No. 23 last season and will likely be out of the playoff hunt by the time their Week 16 game against the Cowboys rolls around. Dallas plays five combined games against rushing-defenses ranked No. 26 or worse—one against the No. 26 Colts, two against the No. 27 New York Giants, and two against the Washington Redskins, who were ranked dead last.
Add all of this up, and Elliott is facing a slate of opponents that should have no chance to contain him. Injuries can change the equation, but Elliott has never suffered a serious one at the NFL level. If he plays all 16 games and the Cowboys can mount even a decent passing attack to prevent opponents from stacking the box against him, Elliott is going to have a monster season. The 2,000-yard plateau is absolutely in play.