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SI 50, No. 4: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott

The best running back in the 2016 NFL draft class comes in at No. 4 on Doug Farrar’s big board.

As the 2016 NFL draft approaches, it’s time for all 32 teams to finish the process of getting their draft boards in order and ranking players based on their own preferences. At SI, it’s time for us to do that as well. To that end, Doug Farrar has assembled his own Big Board, with his top 50 players.

The SI 50 uses tape study to define the best prospects in this class and explain why they’re slotted as such. We continue with the draft’s top running back whose power and versatility can’t be overlooked by NFL teams.

4. Ezekiel Elliot, RB, Ohio State
Height: 6' 0" Weight: 225

Bio: With the ascent of multi-receiver passing offenses and the lack of running backs drafted early in recent drafts, the every-down, bellcow running back is an endangered species in the NFL—or so the narrative states. 

Rams’ Todd Gurley and Chargers’ Melvin Gordon slowed that narrative when they were drafted in the first round last year, but the fact remains: you must be a special player if you‘re among the top-10 at that position.

This year, there seems to be one such player: Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott. A major high-school star who also won several track titles, Elliott was recruited by several major programs, and ultimately chose the Buckeyes. He backed up Carlos Hyde as a true freshman in 2013, rushing 30 times for 262 yards and two touchdowns.

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After Hyde left for the NFL, it became Elliott’s show—he carried the ball 273 times for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns, adding 28 catches for 220 yards in Ohio State’s national championship season. He returned in 2015 even more impressively, gaining 1,821 yards and scoring 23 touchdowns on 289 carries against defenses that had made him their focal point. Elliott also caught 27 passes for 206 yards, adding to his rep as a rare kind of versatile player at his position.

In late November Elliott caused a bit of a furor last year when he questioned his coaches’ playcalling after a 12-carry 33-yard game against Michigan State.

“I’m disappointed in the play-calling. I’m disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently,” Elliott said after the 17–14 loss. “It is very disappointing... we ran a lot of gap schemes and we were gashing them. We had a lot of momentum. Honestly, we didn’t see those plays for the rest of the game. Those plays weren’t called anymore. I asked for those plays to be called, and they weren’t. It just hurts. It hurts a lot because of how we lost. I feel like we just weren’t put in the right situations to win this game.”

College players who question their coaches are generally going to get blasted by media and fans, whether or not they have a point. And Elliott had a point, since he’d established himself as the team’s most explosive offensive weapon. He apologized after the fact, and said at the combine that he has grown since that experience, but how many teams are really going to ding him for wanting the ball more in crucial situations? Especially when the tape shows, over and over, that when Elliott gets the ball, good things tend to happen. We should expect the same when he reaches the NFL.

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Strengths: Powerful runner with strong leg drive who rarely goes down on first contact—he’s always extending for extra yardage. Has the potential to dominate in short-yardage and goal-line situations when he gets low and physical. Turns his back with excellent timing to add leverage when multiple tacklers have him. Makes it very difficult for defenders at linebacker and DB depth because he brings the hammer all the way through the down. Cuts quickly in open space to make defenders miss; sometimes to an embarrassing degree.

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One of Elliott’s most important and transferrable attributes is his excellent vision—he sees ahead of the play, understands where gaps will open up and accelerates smoothly and decisively to the hole. True one-cut-and-go runner at the line when that’s required. Sorts through trash very well—will pick and move and then take off when things are open. Has the patience to wait for blocks to develop. Maintains productivity on outside runs and sweeps with power.

Elliott is also the best blocker of all the backs in this class, one of the things that makes him a true every-down back. He faces up to defenders credibly, and has no issue throwing himself at potential tacklers out in space. Gets his hands into the chests of defenders and has the upper-body strength and technique to re-direct them. Sells play-fakes so well, cameras and defenders will follow him when they shouldn’t. As a receiver, lines up everywhere from the backfield, to the slot and outside, and is just as much a threat after the catch as he is when he’s handed the ball. Keeps his momentum through the ends of games, despite a fairly ridiculous workload. Intelligent situational player who makes himself an asset regardless of scheme and gameplan.

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Weaknesses: While Elliott smoothly accelerates to the second level, he doesn’t necessarily show an extra gear to pull away from defenders in the open field, an issue that could be exacerbated in the NFL against faster defenders. Could stand to be less patient and more explosive at times, though this could be a product of coaching.

At times, his competitive field demeanor will have him looking for people to hit when there’s open field to exploit. Will need to broaden his route concepts if he goes to an NFL team with an advanced passing package for running backs. Good outside runner, but not a burner after he turns the corner. Generally, he’s more smooth and powerful than overwhelmingly fast in a straight line. Can be caught from behind, though he's always a load to tackle when you get to him. Workload may be an issue for his future—carried the ball 26 times or more in a game nine times in the last two seasons. Some may debit him for post-game comments vs. Michigan State.

Conclusion: Except for the relative lack of explosive speed, Elliott checks all the boxes for just about any NFL scheme. He’s perhaps best-suited for a power structure with a lot of inside and outside zone, but he’d adapt just as well to running behind a bunch of man-blocking maulers. What really makes him special and ready for the NFL is his understanding and implementation of the little things that make great backs great—when to cut and run, when to clown a linebacker, when to cut-block outside, when to turn on a route. There are athletes, and there are football players, and Elliott is both. The Tomlinson comp doesn’t factor in Tomlinson’s insane value as an NFL receiver, but Tomlinson caught just 43 passes for 267 yards in college. The running styles are similar, and so is the upside.

Pro Comparison: LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers/Jets, 2001–11 (first round, 2001, TCU, Chargers)