Rooks. Noobs. You know, those guys who have to come in, learn the ropes, figure things out. They may be good one day, but to start, no one expects too much. That is true just about everywhere, and that includes the NFL. It is the experienced stars that influence the game and take it in new directions.
Well, that’s how it usually is. But at the 2017 NFL Combine, there are two names being brought up repeatedly not only as standards of comparison for potential draftees, but as players whose performance last season is making teams rethink just how they will approach the draft.
Dak Prescott and Ezekiel Elliott.
The “Dak Prescott Effect” had already become fairly well known with predictions that his stunning success as a rookie would help push quarterbacks up draft boards this year as teams sought to find their own unheralded passer to turn into a franchise QB. This week in Indianapolis, a second influence has become clear, the “Ezekiel Elliott Effect”. Todd Archer was one who started to use that term for the expectation that NFL teams are going to be much more open to taking running backs early in the draft than they were prior to Elliott claiming the league rushing title his first year.
Elliott is either enjoying the fruits of his rookie success with the Dallas Cowboys -- after having led the NFL in rushing in 2016 -- or preparing for his second season with the Cowboys or both, but there is an Elliott effect being felt in this year’s draft.
Before Elliott’s success as the fourth overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft, running backs were mostly viewed as difficult pieces to find in order to help an offense succeed.
Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook, Samaje Perine, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara mentioned Elliott’s play as a help in their stock this year.
“It helped us completely,” said Fournette, who could be the first of a handful of running backs selected in April's first round. “It showed he was not just a running back. He can help in the passing game. He can run. He can block. I think he led a great way for these running backs coming out now.”
It may not be completely unheard of for a rookie player to come into the NFL and have such an impact that teams appear to be rethinking how they approach things. However, it is rather rare. To have two such rookies in one season is even more unusual.
But to have two rookies like that lined up in the same backfield?
I’m not the best at recalling the history of the NFL. Or remembering why I got up from my chair and went into the next room. Still, I cannot recall anything like this. A pair of rookies on one team who directly challenge the conventional wisdom at their respective positions.
And if you have never noticed, the NFL really, really likes sticking to the conventional wisdom. It is a conservative league, at least at the top. Change tends to come incrementally, in an evolutionary fashion. It takes one of those “significant emotional events” to get a number owners, coaches, and GMs to be considering a real change in their approach and methodology at any one time. It looks like the Dak and Zeke show in Dallas may have done just that.
The funny thing is that this could all be one huge trap for any teams who are mulling ways to try and imitate what the Cowboys did. It would probably be all but impossible to replicate.
Elliott is simply an incredibly complete running back. There may be some players this year that have one aspect or another of their game that is as good or even a bit better than his - but no one is as good in all aspects of the game as he is. He is one of the more complete backs you will ever see, able to play on any down. And Prescott’s most valuable qualities were either masked or unused by the college spread offense, or just fell into the “intangibles” category that could not be fully evaluated until he was actually with the team. Elliott was of course taken with the fourth overall pick, and with the clarity of hindsight, Prescott is now seen to have been the player that should have been taken first overall. If those re-thinkings of the draft are correct, then the Cowboys got the equivalent of having the first and fourth overall pick. The odds of another team pulling that off again are very, very remote.
This year, there may be a close approximation of Elliott, or even a back that is basically his equivalent. But it is highly doubtful that another Prescott is lurking in what is seen as a weak overall quarterback group. And getting one half of the combination will fail to bring the unquestionable synergy that the two rookies generated. They were very good on their own, but even better because of each other.
That brings up the next part of the whole equation, the rest of the Dallas offense. When he was drafted, Elliott was seen as the one missing piece for the offense. The line was already in place, and Tony Romo was still expected to be there throwing to the strong group of receivers. It was a situation almost custom designed for Elliott to have great success, since the Cowboys had been investing in the offensive line with an eye towards the running game for several years. Drafting Elliott was a great job of knowing what they were structured to do and finding the best player to fit. Prescott being able to step in for Romo with no real dropoff in offensive production was the lucky stroke that no one saw coming.
And that is why teams that go chasing the next Zeke or Dak in the draft will wind up disappointed, unless they have the other components they need. Elliott and Prescott are good enough that they would likely have been successful anywhere they landed - just not Pro Bowl and offensive rookie of the year successful. That was because they were part of something bigger and better than themselves. And it is why teams that change their draft plans just because it worked in Dallas are going to be wasting their efforts unless they get a whole lot else right, too.
But let them try.