Let’s discuss the fourth selection of this year’s NFL Draft, running back Zeke Elliott.
There is a argument in the NFL that the running back position has been devalued in the last couple of years and in some regards it has. Should Ezekiel Elliott be considered a elite back in the NFL, in my opinion he should be.
Zeke is the highest draft choice made by the franchise since Russell Maryland went first overall 25 years ago. In the Cowboys’ mind, he can make the biggest impact – offensively, and defensively – than any other prospect in consideration at No. 4.
You can question whether the Cowboys coming off 0f a 4-12 season could afford to draft an exceptional talent like Jaylon Smith in the second round knowing his knee injury might very well sideline him for the 2016 season.
In the first round, you can certainly argue the roster has bigger needs than running back, given that it already has two veterans with over 130 starts and 10,000 career rushing yards between them. (Defensive end, defensive tackle, cornerback depth come to mind.)
But in many ways, the key to the Cowboys’ 12-win season two years ago – coupled with a healthy Tony Romo and Dez Bryant, of course – was the tough-minded identity they developed through their second-ranked running game. It wasn’t just an offensive theme – it permeated throughout the roster, to the defense and special teams.
Win or lose, the 2014 Dallas Cowboys was the more physical football team on the field.
The 2015 running game had flashes last year. Problem was, the rotation endured too much instability. Lance Dunbar got hurt in the fourth game. Joseph Randle got cut a month later. Injuries to Romo and Bryant didn’t help matters either.
Darren McFadden did an admirable job as the featured back for the final 11 games. Alfred Morris was signed to ensure the position wouldn’t deal with the same depth problems as 2015.
But the organization felt it couldn’t pass on a player with Elliott’s complete skill set, and a certain toughness about him, who can immediately impact both sides of the ball – perhaps making him more NFL ready than an elite cornerback or defensive line prospect.
(video credit: the CNtaco)
Elliott’s different for a couple reasons.
He’s 20 years old, 7-8 years younger than his above mentioned counterparts. The Cowboys believe a running back’s best years are arguably his first five the length of Elliott’s future rookie contract.
They also see Elliott as a superior talent with a much more comprehensive ceiling than the part-time, change-of-pace backs typically found in the later rounds. They have an excellent coach, Gary Brown, who will work to maximize his talent. Meaning, an every down back who can take pressure off Romo, take pressure off Bryant, Jason Witten and others.
Elliott is a patient and physical runner who can keep his own defense fresh and keep churning out yards and protecting leads in the second half.
Despite constant changes in personnel, the Cowboys still had a solid season running the ball in 2015. It could’ve been better particularly in short yardage and in the red zone. The offense converted 49 percent of downs between third-and-1 and third-and 3, including 42.1 percent on third-and-1. Their opponents converted 59.7 percent of those downs, including 65.4 percent on third-and-1.
There’s also this to consider: the running back position sure isn’t devalued in December and January. When the weather gets colder and windier and the conditions in most stadiums aren’t as friendly to the downfield passing game. Younger legs could benefit this offense if the Cowboys are fortunate enough to stay in the division race and return to the postseason.
Factor in all those elements, and the Cowboys had plenty of incentive to draft this particular running back as early as they did. When a great running back prospect comes along, a player who can control the pace of the game and affect your team in so many different ways, you don’t dismiss him.
That’s why Ezekiel Elliott is a Dallas Cowboy.