With the fourth pick of the 2016 NFL draft, the Dallas Cowboys select Ohio State RB Ezekiel Elliott.
This is a natural pick for the Cowboys, because they have the best run-blocking line in the league, but they haven’t been able to replace DeMarco Murray’s production. Elliott is comparable to LaDainian Tomlinson because he runs so well between the tackles, he’s shifty outside and he’s a tremendous blocker. Like Tomlinson did after his stint at TCU, Elliott can also blossom into a top-notch receiver. Not that he needs huge gaps to make things happen, but he’s going to get them running behind this line, and we could be talking about a future rushing champ here. Elliott will define the Cowboys’ offense through the end of the Romo era and beyond.
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.
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.
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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.
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.