As most of you are probably aware, today marked the end of the Ezekiel Elliot era for the Dallas Cowboys. Zeke came into the NFL as a ready made workhorse back and 1st round pick in fantasy football. The pride of Alton, Illinois is truthfully in rarified air in the history of fantasy football. The list of players to come in as rookies and be drafted in the 1st round of fantasy drafts and instantly deliver on that 1st round promise will remain short forever.
However, as happens with all football players but especially running backs, father time won out for Zeke. As Zeke’s body began to deteriorate, a promising young back just so happened to come into the fold in Dallas. Tony Pollard was a unique prospect as a sort of receiver-running back hybrid at Memphis and thus fell to the 4th round of the NFL Draft.
Fun fact, all of Pollard, Darrell Henderson, Antonio Gibson, and Patrick Taylor were on that Memphis team in his final season, as well as NFL Wide Receiver Anthony Miller in his redshirt freshmen year.
Zeke was his typical productive self in Pollard’s rookie season, amassing 1,777 total yards and 14 touchdowns. However, the falloff began quickly thereafter.
Pollard had shown flashes of immense talent very early on in his career, thanks to that versatile and explosive skillset, including a huge 132 yard, 2 TD performance against the 49ers in 2020 when he got a spot start for an injured Zeke. Playing for an elite Cowboys offense, behind an elite offensive line and receiving a workhorse role in the absence of Zeke, Pollard immediately became a darling in fantasy circles, particularly in Zero RB circles.
He almost instantly became one of, if not the single most, preferred “handcuff” running back in fantasy football drafts. You knew that Pollard was not going to be valuable as long as Zeke was healthy and active, but in the instance in which Zeke were to miss time, Pollard would skyrocket from a middle round pick to a top 5 (or maybe higher) running back for that given week.
But there was a ceiling to how high a player of the handcuff archetype would go in drafts, no matter how much upside they had in the situation in which they became relevant. Especially back then, you simply *could not* draft a backup running back before starting running backs. Those were the rules (or so we were told).
From that point on, all Pollard has done is produce at extremely high levels in all aspects of the game, and all Zeke has done has continue to look worse and worse in his on-field play. But even as drafts became more efficient on platforms like Underdog Fantasy and their huge Best Ball tournaments, there was a capped ceiling on Pollard’s ADP. More on this in a bit…
Then, today happens. After 3 years of declining performance culminating in Zeke looking like an absolute shell of his former self, the Cowboys are reported to be moving on from Zeke.
Needless to say, as soon as that news drops, the fantasy community ERUPTS.
“TONY POLLARD SZN.”
“POLLARD TO THE MOON.’
“IS TONY POLLARD A 1ST ROUND PICK NOW?”
… and similar sentiments are flying everywhere across twitter.com.
Since fantasy football has truly become a year round game with the meteoric rise of Best Ball and huge tournaments already available on sites like Underdog, we already have a glimpse into how drafters value players heading into and during the offseason. In The Big Board, an early NFL Best Ball tournament that is open from essentially the Super Bowl to the NFL Draft, Pollard was already going off the board at an ADP at the end of the 3rd round.
That ADP accounted for the fact that Zeke had turned to dust like a victim of Thanos. It accounted for his incredible performance in 2022, which resulted in 7 spike weeks and 14 usable weeks along with the 7th most total points in half PPR leagues amongst all RBs. It even accounted for drafters shift to more heavily drafting WRs and elite QBs in early rounds, as opposed to the olden days of countless running backs coming off the board in the first few rounds.
At first glance, you might think this newfound excitement over Pollard makes total sense. Zeke is gone. Pollard should easily crush based on a theoretically larger role and his past performance/talent. He really should be going to the moon, right?
But I’m here to tell you that this lifecycle of Tony Pollard is one of the greatest lessons in Best Ball, and frankly one that has taken me a long time to learn even as a total sicko who is engulfed in Best Ball drafts year round.
Best Ball & the Tony Pollard Lifecycle
While I think this also has real application in traditional managed fantasy football leagues, I think it’s important to understand this is definitely Best Ball focused. In Best Ball tournaments, you aren’t simply trying to beat your 11 other league mates. You are trying to beat thousands or hundreds of thousands of other teams. First by getting into the playoffs with a team in the top 2 of your initial 12 team draft. Then by advancing twice (in week 15 and 16) in similar sized playoff “pods” of other teams that made the playoffs. If you can achieve that, congratulations, you’ve reached the finals and now you still need to beat a large amount of other awesome teams in a one week tournament in week 17. Sure, you can make a small amount of money by making the playoffs or advancing a round or two, but such a massive percentage of the total prizes are doled out in that week 17 final.
Because of this unique format, which also occurs in a big season long managed league tournament like you see in the FFPC Main Event, it creates super unique elements of how we may want to target players and situations. To somewhat oversimplify, our opponents still frequently draft as if week 1 or early season projections are more important than single week ceilings or end of season upside. This is not the case across the board (see the idiots like me who drafted Trey Lance two years ago as a rookie), but it is still the case in many instances.
Tony Pollard just so happens to be an excellent example of that.
Tony Pollard the Handcuff
When Tony Pollard was viewed as strictly a handcuff to Zeke, we saw that capped ADP. It is viewed as essentially gospel that you can’t take someone with perceived limited standalone value too high in drafts. Of course, there is a certain ADP in which it does become a negative expected value selection, as is the case for most players.
But that market sentiment is precisely what makes someone with Pollard’s profile such an incredible Best Ball selection when he’s priced as a handcuff (like in 2021 and 2022). His ADP will never get too high because our opponents will never believe you can draft someone who is technically behind a teammate on the depth chart or has a relatively poor week 1 projection ahead of players with locked in week 1 roles. If you were setting your week 1 lineup for your league with your college buddies, you’d never start Tony Pollard over a locked in starter in week 1, so why the heck would you draft him ahead of that starter in Best Ball?
That mindset is precisely the advantage of someone like Pollard in Best Ball tournaments for two reasons.
- It ignores the aforementioned fact about how Best Ball tournaments are won, which is so heavily weighted to the end of the season (and week 17 in particular). Meaning that due to the fact that a running back like Pollard is more likely to maintain health over the course of the season while his “starter” teammate is taking on much of his volume at the start of the season, more of Pollard’s projected points and projected upside are going to come in those money weeks at the end of the season.
- It makes overconfident assumptions about those volume projections, especially in Pollard’s case. Everyone on the planet knew that Zeke was not only on the decline but nearing the end of his career. Everyone also knew that Pollard is in his prime as a player and wildly productive in all facets of the game. It was very much in the range of outcomes that Pollard simply outplayed Zeke and stole a larger role for a team with Super Bowl aspirations. It was also known that Zeke was a cut candidate in the summer of 2023, which could mean the Cowboys move more responsibility to Pollard as Zeke rides off into the sunset. Of course, it doesn’t always work out this way, but in this instance, but of these things came true.
So, we have a player who everyone agrees becomes one of the best RB assets with one of the highest weekly ceilings in fantasy in the instance he receives more work – whether that be with a Zeke injury or by earning it through performance – and a player whose projection and upside skews heavily towards the portion of the season where we NEED our players to be performing at their peak.
And yet, in that instance, the handcuff instance, Pollard’s ADP is capped.
Tony Pollard the Starter
Now that Zeke is gone from the Cowboys we have the opposite scenario. Pollard is the “starter” for the Cowboys coming off an incredible season, and they just cut the player who has been the one limiting him from being a true fantasy star for several years. Wheels up, right? Why isn’t he just catapulted to a 1st round pick?
Let’s get this out of the way first – this is being written on March 15th, in the early stages of free agency and before the NFL Draft. We’ll have a better idea how to project the situation in the coming months. None of this I’m about to write is to say that you shouldn’t draft Tony Pollard, that he’s overvalued, a “bust” or anything similar. It’s simply to talk through the applications and thought process we should be applying to players like this as we construct our Best Ball teams and Best Ball portfolios.
There is a scenario in which the Cowboys do not add any notable running back talent to their team, and they hand over the keys to Pollard, letting him dominate the backfield touches in a workhorse like manner.
However, there are multiple other scenarios that are very realistic that we must account for.
Somewhat hilariously, former Cowboys RB coach Skip Peete discussed the fact that he needed to make sure to be smart about how many touches and snaps to give Pollard, which Pollard was frustrated about. That RB coach is now gone, so you may think, so what? No big deal. Well, Pollard himself then told us this past year that he was unable to handle a total workhorse role this past season in Week 8.
This is not the end of the world in fantasy circles, as nearly all NFL backfields have gone to a committee-like approach, and we’ve seen supremely talented players like Austin Ekeler produce huge seasons in a slightly lesser role that doesn’t mirror Christian McCaffrey’s 100% workhorse role from his Panther days.
We also, however, have the scenario in which the Cowboys do bring in some notable other backs to their roster. Whether it be a talented rookie from the 2023 NFL Draft or a veteran that can handle a similar role to what Zeke has been handling, I’d argue it’s extremely likely the Cowboys go this route. This scenario really just leaves us in the same place as we expected with Pollard before Zeke was cut, except now his backfield mate(s) are almost assuredly more talented than Zeke is at this point. As good as Pollard is (he’s freaking awesome), if your competition for touches and playing time goes from the corpse of an NFL running back to a talented player, that’s a slight ding to your median expectation.
Technically we also have a scenario in which the Cowboys, who are not committed to Pollard beyond this season with the franchise tag, bring in a big time running back to transition to as their back of the future. Maybe they learned it’s not wise to pay a big contract to a running back like they did with Zeke, and like Pollard will be chasing, and they want to pair Pollard with their next version of Pollard. If we’re being honest, drafting Bijan Robinson in the 1st round sure does seem like a Jerry Jones thing to do, but let’s not get too crazy here.
All of these things come together to create a profile that’s almost the opposite of the first “handcuff” profile we outlined above.
- Pollard’s production and ceiling are now more heavily weighted to the beginning of the season, as opposed to the end. He’s coming off a big season, but a season in which he suffered a very serious injury (broken leg and high ankle sprain) in the Cowboys Playoff loss to the 49ers. Even if they bring in a quality backfield mate, Pollard is going to project as the leader of the RB room to start the year. But if he already admitted to not being able to handle a workhorse role in week 8 of 2022 when Zeke was taking his fair share of touches and snaps, his late season outlook is dampened a bit in this new scenario. And again, we know that if we had our druthers, we want that to be the opposite.
- It’s almost assuredly going to make us overconfident in Pollard’s projection. He is nowhere near the situation that we had with Zeke where he’s declining and worse than his “backup”, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t variance in what his volume will play out to be. As mega sharp Ben Gretch, author of Stealing Signals, has continually outlined, the NFL season is total chaos. It’s great to put together projections for what the season will look like, but it never, ever plays out that way no matter how good you are at projections or how intelligent the assumptions in your projections are. Pollard is probably a bit more likely to get injured earlier in the season given what we know about running backs, but it’s also possible they scale him back later in the year to save him for the playoffs, or they start that transition to their back of the future, or maybe they’re even resting him as they’re locked into the playoffs. Who knows!
All of this isn’t to say that Pollard is a back pick now and was the best pick ever before (although maybe he was?). It isn’t to say you can’t draft Pollard now.
It’s just that the lifecycle of Tony Pollard in Best Ball, given the nuances of Best Ball tournaments, is an incredibly fascinating thought experiment. Best Ball is clearly an unsolved game, and I don’t think it’s ever really solvable. But we can continue to be super thoughtful about these types of situations in order to do everything we can to maximize our chances at taking home a piece of the millions and millions of dollars up for grabs every year.