• Ezekiel Elliott lifted the bar for rookie running backs after his incredible 2016 season, and now it's up to this year's class of rookie RBs to live up to those standards. 
By Chris Burke
March 02, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS — The running backs enduring the NFL draft process now are finding that Ezekiel Elliott’s immediate success has created both pros and cons for this class.

On one hand, Elliott in particular showed the value of drafting a running back in the top five (if the fit makes sense, of course)—the Cowboys’ rookie pushed for MVP and Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, while helping Dallas claim the NFC’s top playoff seed. But on the other hand, the 2017 class now will be viewed under the Elliott lens. Unless a player can make that type of impact out of the gate, what’s the point of taking him in the top 10?

Dalvin Cook is focused on the positives.

“What Zeke did paved the way for us,” Cook said Thursday, during his combine press conference. “Zeke did a great job catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting Dak [Prescott] at QB, running very well behind a good offensive line.”

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His challenge in the next seven weeks or so is convincing at least one NFL team of that argument. Both Cook and Leonard Fournette are being viewed as obvious Round 1 selection, with top-10 upside.

Elliott is fresh in everyone’s minds, but the NFL decision makers surely have not forgotten about Trent Richardson or even about the second season of Todd Gurley’s young career—while Rams GM Les Snead on Thursday called Gurley’s 2016 performance a “sophomore slump,” there are no guarantees Gurley rediscovers his rookie form.

Do any of those cases matter when teams pick through Cook or Fournette or the rest of the 2017 backs? Not necessarily, but they’re also hard to ignore.

What works to Cook’s advantage is the remarkable production he delivered at Florida State (2,253 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns this season). He is a home-run hitting back capable of turning small creases into huge gains, and he can step out of the backfield and catch passes.

Better yet, he found that success in a pro-style offense. For the past few combines, NFL coaches and GMs have been grilled about the challenges of scouting spread-offense prospects. Cook doesn’t come with that roadblock.

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“Coach [Jimbo] Fisher’s system definitely helps me transfer to the NFL level,” Cook said. ”Because when I’m in certain meeting rooms and coaches are asking me questions, I can relate very well. His offense is very intense, it’s a big playbook, and the NFL is the same way.”

Pros and cons, though. Cook has undergone multiple shoulder surgeries, he fumbled 13 times during his Florida State career and he has off-field incidents over which NFL teams will grill him (he was found not guilty on a misdemeanor battery charge in 2015).

“I checked out, every team. I passed my medical exams,” Cook said. “My shoulders, they’re stable, they’re solid.”

And as for any potential character red flags: “I’m open and willing to answer every question, I ain’t hiding nothing. If they ask it, I’m willing to answer. Willing to move forward and be a better person.”

It’s all part of the puzzle. The main piece, at this point, being his on-field performance. Cook would argue his Florida State tape shows a game-changing back, and that Elliott’s breakthrough proved what that type of performer can do for an offense.

“At the next level, ain’t too many spread teams, so everybody’s asking running backs to do the same thing—get out there and split wide, catch the ball,” Cook said. “It’s becoming a passing league, but us running backs are trying to bring it back. Get the ball, pound the ball again so we can open up the pass.”

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Exactly how much of a running-back draft revolution is underway in the NFL will be revealed come April 27, based on where Cook, Fournette and the rest of the top talents start coming off the board.

But there’s no doubt that Cook will tell teams he’s worth it, and that he can a standout rookie running back, just like Elliott in 2016.

“It goes to show that if a running back gets put in the right system, put in the right place, he can do a great amount of things for the team,” Cook said. “I feel if I get put in the right system, I can do the same things Zeke did.”

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