Any other year, any other era, and it’s not even open for discussion: Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is a top 10 prospect. Or top five. Or even top three. Or maybe even No. 1 overall.
But with the NFL having been transformed into a passing league, the stunning devaluation of running backs — even though the ground game remains important — means Elliott may have to play a waiting game at the top of the draft. He still might go very, very early. The Cowboys, who weren’t the same last season without DeMarco Murray, have discussed taking Elliott at No. 4. The Browns, who missed big with Trent Richardson as the third pick in 2012, will consider Elliott after trading down to the eighth pick.
There’s no way he’ll become the first runner since Penn State’s Ki-Jana Carter in 1995 to go first overall. The Rams and Eagles will go with quarterbacks at 1-2. But wherever and whenever Elliott goes, his team will have a playmaker, even though the NFL now relies on up-tempo passing attacks, not between-the-tackles runners.
Elliott believes he can be at the center of a resurgence of big-time backs. “I think the guys last year that were first-round picks like Todd Gurley [Rams], they set a standard for the younger generation coming up,” Elliott said. “I feel we’re going to bring it back.”
Recent history suggests otherwise. Since 2008, when five running backs, including Darren McFadden, Chris Johnson and Jonathan Stewart, were taken in the first round, no more than three were taken in the first round. None went in the first round in 2013 and 2014, with only six first-rounders in the last five years.
Rules changes benefitting the passing game are at the heart of the precipitous drop-off. Last year, there were a combined 487.7 passing yards per game, a record. Rushing yardage was 217.7, the lowest total since 1999.
Consider, too, that many teams have succeeded with running backs by committee. That approach once was viewed as a detriment because the feature back couldn’t get into a rhythm. Teams are more inclined to go that route, especially if they lack a franchise-caliber back. The Giants won Super Bowls in the 2007 and 2011 seasons using a three-man rotation. The defending champion Broncos last year relied on C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman, neither of whom ran for 1,000 yards. The 2014 champion Patriots relied almost exclusively on Tom Brady’s arm, with no back totaling even 500 yards.
But there’s still room for big-time runners. Adrian Peterson is still the focal point of the Vikings’ offense. Gurley immediately became a factor for the Rams once he returned from a knee injury. The Titans plan to use Murray, acquired from the Eagles, to provide balance for quarterback Marcus Mariota. The Bucs’ Doug Martin, a 2012 first-rounder, ran for a career-high 1,402 yards last season.
But the walls are closing in, so Elliott carries a heavy burden as he tries to rekindle the old-school style. He’s as complete a back as we’ve seen in quite some time — the guy even loves to block — and his spectacular production the past two seasons augurs well for what lies ahead.
“I think the thing that sets me apart is my versatility,” Elliott said. “I’m a guy that can play three downs. You don’t have to take me off the field. I value blocking more than anything. I love to run the ball and I think I have great hands out of the backfield.”
“When I first started playing football [at 7], I was a fullback, and my first job was to block,” Elliott said. “When I first got to Ohio State I realized I wasn’t going to be the biggest or fastest guy, I was only 17 playing with a bunch of 22- and 21-year-old guys, so I was trying to find something that would set me apart. And that day I realized it was just effort. Not everyone is willing to go out there and play with a lot of effort. And blocking is another thing that running backs aren’t really willing to do. That’s a part of my game. I really made it important to me to become very good at.”
Blocking will come in handy for his blitz pickup, an essential, if underrated, part of any back’s repertoire. But it’s what happens between the tackles that will set Elliott apart. He’s as good an inside runner as you’ll ever find, and with an optimum build of 6 feet, 225 pounds, he can become a dynamic rusher from the start. Elliott was the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2015, rushing for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns. The year before, he helped Ohio State win the national championship with 1,878 rushing yards — a 6.9-yard average — and 18 touchdowns. He also caught a combined 55 passes in 2014-15.
Credit two former NFL players for being instrumental in Elliott’s formative years. He grew up in St. Louis and idolized Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk and the “Greatest Show on Turf” offense led by Kurt Warner. And he played under former Washington quarterback Gus Frerotte at John Burroughs School in St. Louis.
“Marshall Faulk was my guy growing up and that’s who I always emulated my game after,” Elliott said. “He’s been a mentor to me. He’s been a big help to me in this process.”
Frerotte had an even greater influence on the field.
“He was a great coach for me in high school,” Elliott said of the former quarterback. “High school is kind of where I developed my pass-catching skills. He was a brilliant mastermind as an offensive coordinator/head coach. He used me in a lot of ways to get me in open space to get the ball. In high school is where I developed my receiving skills. He used me a lot in the slot. He used me a lot at receiver.”
He sure looks like the complete package, and whichever team takes him likely won’t regret it once Elliott’s career plays out. And maybe, just maybe, his play can provide evidence there’s still a place in the NFL for the running game.