Elliott effect, deep class fuel running back resurgence
Ezekiel Elliott's immediate impact last season, along with one of the strongest classes in years, have made running backs popular again heading into this week's NFL draft.
After running backs failed to go in the first round in 2013 and '14, LSU's Leonard Fournette, Stanford's Christian McCaffrey and Florida State's Dalvin Cook could be selected on Thursday. That would mark the first time since 2012 that three backs are selected on the first day.
''It was a good thing for us coming in right now,'' Cook said. ''Zeke did a great job of catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting Dak (Prescott) at quarterback, and running very well behind a good offensive line.''
Elliott ran for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns last season for Dallas, becoming the first rookie since Edgerrin James in 1999 to lead the league in rushing.
Elliott's success came the year after the Rams' Todd Gurley became the first rookie in league history to rush for 125 yards or more in four straight games. Both were also voted NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Add in Melvin Gordon's solid play last season with the Chargers and the past three first-round picks have shown that they were worth the pick. That has reversed a trend in which first-round picks had struggled or bombed, the most notable being Trent Richardson, the third overall pick by Cleveland in 2012.
Richardson's struggles were one reason 2013 marked the first time in 50 years a back was not picked in the first round.
A consensus of general managers and scouts believes that a back can be taken in the late rounds and still prosper. Jordan Howard, second in rookie rushing yards last season, was a fifth-round pick by the Bears.
Only three of the top 10 rushers in the league last season - Elliott, Le'Veon Bell (Steelers) and LeSean McCoy (Bills) - were drafted in the first two rounds.
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, who was Browns general manager from 2005-08, says teams can find a back in every round this year. Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, though, believes that the round shouldn't matter as long as the selection can make an immediate impact.
''I understand the arguments about shelf life and maybe you can find running backs later in the draft. But if you have an opportunity to get a great football player who's a running back, he can have a big impact on your football team,'' Garrett said during the scouting combine.
Many believe Fournette will be the first taken. He rushed for 2,045 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2015, but played in only seven games last year due to an ankle injury. Despite the limited playing time he gained 873 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
Fournette is more of a traditional back with a punishing running style. He had only 40 receptions in three seasons at LSU and was not counted on much to block.
''He is more of an I-formation back. Put him behind the quarterback and hand it to him in order to get his momentum going as a downhill runner,'' Savage said. ''I thought LSU took away from his talent when they had him as a back in the shotgun. You're not playing to his strength when you offset him.''
Savage believes McCaffrey has the best hands of anyone in the draft, including receivers and tight ends. McCaffrey led FBS in all-purpose yards the past two seasons, including averaging 211.5 yards per game last year, and led the Pac-12 in rushing yards (1,603) last season
There are some though, including Savage, who wonder if McCaffrey can be an every-down back or if he is better suited for a backfield by committee.
During the combine, McCaffrey said he felt he was being a little disrespected in this year's class because of his versatility.
''I don't think there's anyone else that can do all the things I can as far as running between the tackles, outside pass protect, play X, Z, slot, and do a lot of things in the return game as well,'' he said.
Cook is considered one of the more elusive backs and averages 4.2 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. He rushed for 1,765 yards last season but also excelled catching the ball out of the backfield, averaging 14.8 yards on 33 receptions.
''If a running back gets put in the right system, you put him in the right place, he can do a great amount of things for a team. I feel like if I can get put in the right system I can do the same things that Zeke did,'' Cook said.
Texas' D'Onta Foreman, Toledo's Kareem Hunt, Tennessee's Alvin Kamara and Oklahoma's Samaje Perine could go in the second or third rounds. Oklahoma's Joe Mixon remains the most polarizing prospect in the draft after he was suspended in 2014 for punching a woman in the face.
''People talk about backs being devalued. I don't see that being the case,'' Arizona general manager Steve Keim said during the combine. ''I see peaks and valleys of special guys to come out, and if you think a guy is going to be special, you take him.''
AP Pro Football Writer Teresa M. Walker and Sports Writer Schuyler Dixon contributed.
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