The Dallas Cowboys can not take Ezekiel Elliot with the number four pick in this spring's draft. My issue here is not with Elliot. I believe that he is clearly this year's best running back prospect. The issue I have is with using the number four overall pick in the NFL Draft on any running back. NFL careers are short in general; running back careers are particularly so, and when picking in the top five a team's goal should be to find a player who will start for them for the next decade. Furthermore, the hope should be that the payer will become a perennial Pro Bowler.
In a previous post, my esteemed colleague Tom Ryle has already given you the many reasons why Elliot will be both a success in the pros, and a great fit for the Dallas offense. Certainly head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan would be able to maximize Elliot's ability. And of course, running behind the NFL's finest collection of road-grading run blockers would be a dream scenario for any back. But the point here is, how many seasons can one realistically expect Elliot to do these things at a high level?
The average NFL running back lasts just 3.11 seasons in today's NFL. That is a frighteningly small number when you are considering using your first-round pick on one. You are counting on the player to significantly outperform his peers. Back in 2010 the Buffalo Bills used their ninth-overall pick on Clemson running back C.J. Spiller. Spiller played five seasons in Buffalo before being allowed to leave via free agency for the New Orleans Saints. In his time with the team that drafted him, Spiller gained a mere 4,516 total yards while appearing in 70 games (36 starts). Spiller never lived up to his draft position. When you consider that the Bills could have had a player like Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, who went five picks later, it seems like a terrible waste of valuable resources.
The other side of this coin is that running back has proven to be one of the most difficult positions to scout of late. NFL teams have been just as successful picking backs in the third and fourth round as they have in the first. Over the last ten drafts there have been a lot more C.J. Spillers and Trent Richardsons than Adrian Petersons. In particular the Cowboys have had some very big misses evaluating running backs in the first and second rounds lately. I'm sure we all remember 2008. In the draft that year Dallas selected Arkansas back Felix Jones with the 22nd pick when they could have taken Chris Johnson who went two picks later to the Tennessee Titans. Four years prior to that they traded the 22nd pick away, passing on Steven Jackson, and took Julius Jones with the 43rd pick.
Dallas has much more success picking runners in the later rounds recently. In 2005 the Cowboys used the first of two fourth-rounders on bruising University of Minnesota back Marion Barber III. Barber played six seasons in Dallas and went to the 2007 Pro Bowl. He proved to be and effective feature back and the only mistake the team made was giving him a seven-year deal when it came time to re-sign him. Barber was in Dallas through the 2010 season, then in 2011 the Cowboys found another workhorse runner in the draft. This time it was Oklahoma Sooner DeMarco Murray. Murray was a two time Pro Bowler and led the league in rushing for Dallas before leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles, leaving the void which the team is still trying to fill.
It is true that Dallas has a need at tailback, but the team has needs across the board on defense as well. The Cowboys are in perpetual need of pass rushers along the defensive front, the linebacker corp has been solid but with suspension and injury concerns it may be wise to invest in the future there. Perhaps no position group is in need of a talent infusion as much as the secondary. Dallas could potentially cut starting corner back Brandon Carr, and Morris Claiborne is a free agent.
Don't get me wrong, if the Cowboys do their due diligence on Elliot and determine that he is the player that will buck this trend, then I will be happy to welcome him. I will hope that he is the outlier, and on Sundays I will root for him like crazy. I just don't think this is going to be the case. I would be much more comfortable picking Elliot in the middle to late first round. Dallas is picking at the top however, and they can't afford to get this wrong.