When the Dallas Cowboys selected former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick, it felt like the perfect fit.
Elliott has been viewed as a potentially transcendent talent who will benefit from a Cowboys offensive line that will make his job easier. The line paved the way last season for Darren McFadden as he ran for 1,089 yards. That’s the same Darren McFadden who had only one 1,000-yard seasons in his seven seasons with the Oakland Raiders..
Elliott could become the focal point of Dallas’ offense, similar to how DeMarco Murray was relied upon in 2014. That worked out pretty well for Murray, as he led the NFL with 1,845 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Elliott has the chance to blossom into a star during his rookie season, .but the hype surrounding him also needs a dose of realism. The transition from college to the NFL isn’t easy for anyone. Elliott also has two established veterans behind him in Alfred Morris and McFadden, so the Cowboys could utilize them while easing Elliott into the league.
What makes projecting Elliott’s playing time and production even trickier is that there isn’t much of a true indicator regarding how tailbacks selected in the top 10 of the NFL draft can be expected to perform during their rookie years. Below is a list of the 12 running backs drafted in the top 10 since 2000, plus their stats from their rookie seasons.
Jamal Lewis (No. 5 overall): 309 carries, 1,364 yards, six touchdowns
Thomas Jones (No. 7 overall): 112 carries, 372 yards, two touchdowns
LaDainian Tomlinson (No. 5 overall): 339 carries, 1,236 yards, 10 touchdowns
Ronnie Brown (No. 2 overall): 207 carries, 907 yards, four touchdowns
Cedric Benson (No. 4 overall): 67 carries, 272 yards, zero touchdowns
Carnell Williams (No. 5 overall): 290 carries, 1,178 yards, six touchdowns
Reggie Bush (No. 2 overall): 155 carries, 565 yards, six touchdowns
Adrian Peterson (No. 7 overall): 238 carries, 1,341 yards, 12 touchdowns
Darren McFadden (No. 4 overall): 113 carries, 499 yards, four touchdowns
C.J. Spiller (No. 9 overall): 74 carries, 284 yards, zero touchdowns
Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall): 267 carries, 950 yards, 11 touchdowns
Todd Gurley (No. 10 overall): 229 carries, 1,106 yards, 10 touchdowns
If you average these statistics from these former top 10 draft picks, it equates to 200 carries, 839.5 yards and 5.9 touchdowns. Only seven of these 12 running backs carried the ball at least 200 times during their rookie seasons and only five ran for at least 1,000 yards. Only Gurley, Peterson and Tomlinson ran for at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Recent history also reveals that top 10 tailbacks haven’t been incredibly impactful right away. Gurley became the first top 10 running back since Peterson in 2007 to rush for at least 1,000 yards in his first season.
Granted, Richardson fell just 50 yards shy of that feat, but he also averaged a paltry 3.6 yards per carry. McFadden missed three games during his debut season and Spiller sat out two games in 2010. Richardson and Spiller have both been labeled as busts, while McFadden is currently Elliott’s backup on the Cowboys depth chart.
One could argue that Elliott is the most talented back among the group of top 10 running backs before him. Elliott was dynamic at Ohio State, rushing for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns during his final season.
It’s important to note that all of these running backs were highly acclaimed entering the NFL. So consider that a wash. However, none of these other players had the benefit of running behind Dallas’ offensive line.
Pro Football Focus rated Dallas’ offensive line as one of the best in the league. Left tackle Tyron Smith and center Travis Frederick were graded as “elite” players, while right guard Zack Martin was rated as a “Pro Bowl” caliber player. Only left guard La’El Collins was rated as a below average starter. The Cowboys were also rated as the No. 6 run blocking unit in the NFL by FootballOutsiders.com.
Elliott will have plenty of room to run behind this unit, but the blocking is only half of the equation. Quarterback Tony Romo enters the season as a major question mark. Romo’s 2015 season was marred by collarbone injuries, and he underwent surgery to repair his left clavicle last March. Romo also turned 36 in April and it’s uncertain how much he has left in the tank.
Dallas also doesn’t have a plethora of skill position players outside of Elliott and wide receiver Dez Bryant. The Cowboys relied on receivers Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams as Bryant recovered from a foot injury and the tandem produced mediocre results. Tight end Jason Witten led the team with 77 receptions last season, but he no longer is viewed as an elite tight end at 33 years old.
Elliott enters an ideal situation in Dallas’ backfield, but it’s far from a perfect one. If Romo struggles, it could prompt opposing defenses to load the box, stymie Elliott and dare the aging quarterback to beat them.
Nobody can doubt Elliott’s talent, but he isn’t a lock for immediate stardom. A safe projection? somewhere In the realm of 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns, which is well above the precedent set by previous top 10 running backs.
That might not merit a first-round selection in fantasy football drafts, but the Cowboys are invested for the long haul, not just one season.