Ezekiel Elliott likely to have larger role in Cowboys' offense in 2017

FRISCO, Texas -- Fantasy football players take note: After leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie in 2016, Ezekiel Elliott will do even more in 2017, if Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones has his way.

“He really is problematic for defenses in the passing game, and certainly every time we can get him the ball, I feel good about it,” Jones said.

Elliott caught 32 passes for 363 yards and a touchdown as a rookie. He did most of his damage as a runner, picking up 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns on 322 carries.

At the recent ESPN Fantasy Football Summit, Elliott checked in behind Arizona's David Johnson and Pittsburgh's Le’Veon Bell in the running back rankings.

The difference is the passing game. Johnson had 80 receptions for 879 yards and four touchdowns last year. Bell, even after missing the first three games of the season because of a suspension, had 75 catches for 616 yards and two scores.

Elliott never had more than four catches in a game.

The Cowboys were mindful of the work they gave Elliott. They did not want to tax him in his first year. He was too important as a runner, and the Cowboys had Lance Dunbar to handle the third-down role.

But Dunbar left as a free agent for the Los Angeles Rams, and the Cowboys have not really replaced his skill set. Darren McFadden would be considered the closest thing to a third-down back, but he has had 40 or more catches in a season just three times.

In his final two seasons with the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray had 53 and 57 receptions while playing with the same threats as Elliott: Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Jason Witten and Cole Beasley.

"We have a lot of weapons on offense," Elliott said told reporters earlier in the week, addressing whether he'd be catching more passes. "We got a lot of guys that can catch the football, so I don't know if that's exactly going to happen. But it may."

The strength of the Cowboys' offense remains the offensive line, even with the departure of Ronald Leary and the retirement of Doug Free.

Elliott played on 716 of the team's 1,060 snaps last season, and he was kept out of the regular-season finale to make sure he was fresh in the playoffs. Other than injury, there is no reason to believe the Cowboys won’t rely more on Elliott in 2017.

While Elliott believes he could see more production in the passing game, his focus is on improving as a runner. “I just want to work on being a more dominant, second-level runner,” he said during the Reliant Home Run Derby at Dr Pepper Ballpark Monday. “I think a couple of times last year I could’ve been more elusive when I got to the second level. I just want to focus on altering my runs.”