It bubbled up quickly after the 2016 NFL Combine drew to a close. After not really being on the radar, it seemed, Ezekiel Elliott has become a subject of a fairly heated debate in both the regular and social media. Should he be seriously considered by the Dallas Cowboys as the fourth overall pick in the NFL draft?
There are plentiful arguments being made as to why he shouldn't (which will be addressed by my colleague duckman4real in a lter post), but this post is about the reasons why he should be. Interstingly, there seems to be a move to push for him at the Dallas ESPN site. Todd Archer raised the idea first, addressing the frequently raised objection that you don't draft running backs because they are less likely to get to that second contract.
So the question becomes would you want a running back fresh out of college on a five-year deal worth, say, $33 million total? Is that more palatable than, say, signing a Lamar Miller in free agency for a similar price?
If you are hung up on the second contract, the answer will likely always be no. If you look at running backs as a position to churn through players, then maybe you say yes.
Jean-Jacque Taylor then added a more forceful argument, including that Elliott could protect Tony Romo both as a blocker and in taking pressure off the passing game.
Put Elliott behind the Cowboys' line, which sent tackle Tyron Smith, guard Zack Martin and center Travis Frederick to the Pro Bowl last season, and he could challenge Eric Dickerson's 32-year-old rookie rushing record of 1,808 yards.
That's not hyperbole the way playcaller Scott Linehan has shown he likes to feed the ball to one runner.
Elliott's presence would also help protect Romo, who has had two back surgeries and has broken his collarbone twice. He's brittle these days, whether the Cowboys choose to admit it or not.
Additionally, Elliott could help the defense by extending drives and keeping them off the field, and he would likely also greatly improve the success rate in short-yardage situations. Those are all great arguments that are supported by both his college career and his performance at the Combine. But there is another reason why he needs to be given very serious consideration at the fourth pick. It is just good, sound drafting philosophy.
There are several parts to this. First of all, the idea of drafting primarily for need is a mistake. Draft picks, particularly top five picks, are the most valuable tool an NFL team has for acquiring talent. They are also expensive, so to speak, so you have to make sure you get a player that is worth the cost. The error in overvaluing need is that you can wind up taking a lesser talent because of the perceived need to address the need. You may get a solid piece to plug that hole, but you could pass on a true difference maker. And based on the opinion of many draftniks, Elliott is one of those difference makers.
Working on my top-50 draft board 2.0. The top-5 hasn't changed (and won't). Clear top tier IMO:— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) March 2, 2016
Brugler is very good. And it should be noted that Myles Jack has some injury concerns that could affect how Dallas ranks him on its board, while Bosa's fit in Rod Marinelli's scheme is not entirely certain. It is entirely possible that Elliott could be the second- or third-highest ranked player on their board.
And the Cowboys have stated repeatedly that they want to put the greatest weight on best player available, with scheme fit factored in. Laremy Tunsil is considered by many to be the surest thing in the draft, and would seem to be a no-brainer for the Tennesee Titans to take with the first-overall pick. The Cleveland Browns sit at number two, and given their continuous and voracious appetite for quarterbacks, they are probably going to be almost forced into taking one. The Cowboys are also considered to be at least thinking about a QB with the fourth pick, but it is an open question whether there is really a true franchise passer/field general in this year's class. Even if they do identify one, the odds are that the Browns would beat them to him.
Based on both multiple evaluations and his superb performance at the Combine, Jalen Ramsey is a contender to supplant Tunsil as the best player in this year's class, but he would have to get through the San Diego Chargers or a possible trade partner, given that the Chargers have dangled the idea that they are open to trading back. Ramsey may well be gone, and that could leave Elliott as the best player available when Dallas goes on the clock.
There is a desire among the fan base to sign Lamar Miller in free agency to be the starting RB this year. That would probably preclude taking Elliott, since you cannot completely ignore what you already have on the roster in the draft. But the Cowboys are not showing any signs of wanting to be big spenders in free agency, which would make them unlikely to go after Miller since he is not going to be cheap. And if they do go after a first-tier free agent, they are much more likely to be looking at pass rushers. It is more likely that they are not going to be a player in the first wave of free agency, and with Darren McFadden under contract, they would likely see that need as not being pressing given his success in 2015.
While the running back position is seen as being greatly devalued in recent years, the negative view of using a top-five pick to take one is also colored by what happened with Trent Richardson. The Browns were severely disappointed with the third-overall pick in the 2012 draft, but that is more a reflection of their own unique draft magic in taking the wrong player than the lack of value in taking a high-impact running back that high.
Moreover, there is statistical evidence that taking a running back high in the first round is one of the safest moves an NFL team can make. The number crunchers at 3sigmaathlete.com took a look at the value of all positions taken from 1999-2012 (which included Richardson) and concluded that among players taken with the first ten picks of the draft, only wide receivers and cornerbacks provided more value for their teams. (Hat tip to Jeff Cavanaugh of 105.3 The Fan for pointing this out on Twitter. He is a good follow at @JC1053.) Although this does not fully reflect the most recent trend away from running backs at the top of the draft, it still shows that they are a better investment than many may realize.
This argument also shows he would be more likely to help the team than either Jack or Bosa. If the Cowboys re-sign Rolando McClain, which they have expressed a desire to do, then Jack would not likely be starting in place of him or Sean Lee. And the low production rate of rookie pass rushers is well known. Stacked up against those two possible picks, Elliott is far more likely to be a major contributor as a rookie. And he is only 20, which means that he could see his second contract with Dallas, since the big drop off in running back production tends to kick in around age 27.
Note that this does not say that Elliott is definitely the pick the Cowboys should make. It just says that he should be in the mix, and that he should not be downgraded because of his position. While it depends on what the scouting staff in Dallas determines, there is a real possibility that when the Cowboys go on the clock in the first round, he may be the top-ranked remaining player on their board. And if he is, he should be the pick. He would become a day one starter. He has a very high probability of being very successful in Dallas. And he would be a real difference-maker for the team. If everything falls right on draft day, he would not only be a viable choice for the Cowboys. He would be the right one.