The Dallas Cowboys are breathing some rarefied draft air. As One Cool Customer detailed, the Cowboys have more draft capital to spend than they have had since the notorious con job they worked on the Minnesota Vikings with the Herschel Walker trade. With this unique opportunity, and the hope that it will be a long time before they get a chance like this again, it is crucial that they use those picks, especially the fourth-overall selection, very wisely.
This year's draft class is perhaps not the best one. The top quarterbacks are not seen as necessarily being ready for the NFL game immediately. The edge rusher group is not strong, which is particularly unfortunate for Dallas given its struggles to find help there in free agency. There are few players seen as being real impact makers. Jalen Ramsey is almost universally considered to be one. Myles Jack is another, if he is fully healthy. Joey Bosa may be a third, although the consensus is not as strong for him.
And then there is Ezekiel Elliott. He is clearly seen to be the best running back in this year's class. But that is the problem with putting him in the mix at four. Ball-carriers just are not seen as having as high a value as they once did. They have probably the shortest careers in the league due to the wear and tear they take. With a first-round pick, a team wants to get a player that can give them a decade of service or even more, as Bob Sturm laid out in a recent post. NFL offenses are also increasingly centered around the passing game. According to conventional wisdom, the top five spots in the draft are just too high to take a runner.
Conventional wisdom is not always truly wise. Thinking outside the box is how you find better answers, if you do it right. One of our hard toiling and frequently under-appreciated BTB moderators, scottmaui, did a little of that, and he granted me permission to share his excellent musings on the idea of taking Elliott with that fourth pick. He refers in his remarks to the recent BTB podcast featuring Sigmund Bloom, which also addresses this question, and if you haven't listened, it is well worth your time (and it will amplify on much of scottmaui's ideas).
I hear a lot of fans and media saying that basically any back can run behind this o-line and it is waste of resources to invest in an elite back when you can get 1,100 yards from the likes of DMC. Last year, both here and in Philly, went a long ways to settling the question of whether 2014 success was due more to the RB or the o-line. So I can understand this argument.
But the other way of looking at it is that since we have invested so much in an elite o-line, the best way to make the most of that investment is to have an elite RB behind them. The combination of an elite o-line and RB together maximizes the value of both. This offense is complete in every other position (except backup QB!). It makes sense to me to draft o-line in the first round 3 out of 4 years, and then draft a complete and dynamic back to take advantage of it.
The value of quarterback is so high because, as they say, "he touches the ball on every play." But the way we used Murray, he touched the ball just about every other play. RB is devalued because there is a much greater supply of decent backs compared to QBs, but in terms of one player other than the QB who can have the most impact on any given game, especially with the offensive identity that this team has, as Sig talked about, it is the RB.
And the committee approach to RB can work, but this team has shown that they like a complete, every down back who is the primary weapon of the offense.
What is so special about Zeke is not just how he runs, which is exceptional, but also how complete he is, blocking and catching.
Cowboys place a high value on blitz pickup for RB, and we can't overstate how important that is: he protects our most valuable asset in Romo. Most college backs are very much a work in progress at best, while Zeke is already a skilled and enthusiastic blocker. The better our RB can pick up the blitz, the less chance we're worrying about our backup QB.
Then think about how effectively they used Murray catching out of the backfield. Romo loves to be able to check down to the RB when his reads are not open. RB in space with decent gain, an extension of the run, with big play potential. This is a big part of our attack, and Zeke is exceptional in this role.
I can understand questions about RB positional value, etc. But to me the argument that because we have an elite o-line we don't need an elite RB is backwards. Because we have an elite o-line, it makes an elite, complete RB even more valuable, and worth more than it would to other teams. I think this may outweigh the deficit in positional value.
I would love a trade back with SF to 7 and then get Zeke, and another pick! But if we picked him at 4, I would be delighted, too.
I also would be happy with Ramsey or Jack and fine with Bosa or Buckner or Wentz. Or even Tunsil, OMG this o-line! It seems there ~7 players that are in play at the top, we're going to end up with one of them, and any will help our team. But the fact that Zeke is up there in the top 5 on big boards means he for sure has to be in play. And I think that the investment we have put into this o-line, and this philosophy of this offense, and the otherwise complete staffing of it, and the window of Romo/Witten, all makes Zeke make sense for the pick.
To be fully honest, this struck home to me because I share many of the same opinions. I just thought scottmaui did such an excellent of laying it all out concisely and clearly. As he observes, there are other players that can be very valuable to the Cowboys. But Elliott would unquestionably let the team re-establish the run-first mentality that carried them so far in 2014. Of particular note, his point about Elliott being such a well-developed and willing blocker also provides a tremendous synergy in making Tony Romo and the passing game more effective. He would not be a tradeoff in the passing game, but a tremendously complimentary asset.
Sturm's article made the argument that you couldn't take a running back so high because of the relative shortness of their careers (and because he was building an argument to take the heir to Romo). But Elliott is young, and would only be 21 at the start of his NFL tenure. That means he would have six or seven years before he gets to the window when running backs see their production starting to fall off, and could well get to that ten year period while still making a significant contribution on the field.
He is an option that should be strongly considered by the Cowboys, especially if Ramsey and Bosa are both gone and Dallas is not sold on any of the current crop of passers as worthy heirs to Romo. And if the team truly wants to return to the ability to take a game over and grind the opposing defense into submission, he may be the best player of the entire draft to wear the Star this year.