With the 2017 draft approaching, has the defining debate of the 2016 draft been resolved - should the Cowboys have taken Ezekiel Elliott or Jalen Ramsey?
To answer this question, how do you compare the relative value of Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey? One is a running back, and the other a defensive back. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.
Pro Football Reference tries to make this comparison using a metric they call Approximate Value.
Created by PFR founder Doug Drinen, the Approximate Value (AV) method is an attempt to put a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year (since 1950).
By placing a single number on all players in all years, it allows for cross position comparisons, cross year comparisons, career comparisons, team comparisons, and more. It’s really a very interesting statistic. It’s not perfect, but this is what it’s founder has to say on that.
"AV is not meant to be a be-all end-all metric. Football stat lines just do not come close to capturing all the contributions of a player the way they do in baseball and basketball. If one player is a 16 and another is a 14, we can't be very confident that the 16AV player actually had a better season than the 14AV player. But I am pretty confident that the collection of all players with 16AV played better, as an entire group, than the collection of all players with 14AV."
With that caveat, how do Ezekiel Elliott and Jalen Ramsey compare?
In the last 10 drafts - 2007-2016 - here are all the players who scored more than a 10 approximate value as rookies.
(To read the chart headings, rank, player, year and age are obvious. Draft reads as the round and overall pick number. Team, league, games, games started, years, pro bowls and all-pro years and approximate value fill out the headings.)
An AV of more than 10 is an arbitrary cut off point, but it seemed important to give enough names to provide context for the evaluation number. As you can see, Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott tied for fifth with Russell Wilson in the highest value rookie seasons of the last 10 years.
If we went back 20 years, they would tie for 8th. 30 years? They would still be tied for 8th. 40 years? They would drop to 11th. 50 years? Still 11th. So, according to Approximate Value, Dak and Zeke were tied for the 11th highest-valued rookies of the last 50 years. That’s pretty rare air.
Who is ahead of them? Edgerrin James, Patrick Peterson, Jevon Kearse, Cam Newton, Marcus Allen, Robert Griffin III, Ronnie Lott, Randy Moss, Lawrence Taylor, and Patrick Willis.
Who did they tie with? Kendrell Bell, Tony Dorsett, Marshall Faulk, Ricky Watters, and Russell Wilson.
Among running backs, Zeke is tied for third with Tony Dorsett, Marshall Faulk, and Ricky Watters, with only Edgerrin James and Marcus Allen ahead of him. Erik Dickerson scored a 15.
Also, among all running backs in 2016, Zeke’s 16 AV was tops in the NFL, followed by Le’Veon Bell, Devonte Freeman, and David Johnson, who all scored 15 AV.
How did Ramsey do? He scored an 8, which is actually a very impressive number for a rookie. It’s just not a 16.
An AV of 8 ranks Ramsey as tied for 91st (through 139th) among rookie seasons in the last 10 years.
Among defensive backs, it ranks him tied for 8th, with Janoris Jenkins and Jarius Byrd, for rookies over the last 10 years.
For the 2016 draft class, it ranks him tied for 11th with Joe Thuney, an offensive guard for New England.
Among all defensive backs in 2016, it ranks him tied for 14th with Stephon Gilmore and Darian Stewart.
So, on a pure heads up basis, Ezekiel Elliott is head and shoulders above Jalen Ramsey, at least using Approximate Value.
What about the team impact?
The Cowboys went from 4-12 in 2015 to 13-3 in 2016, and could have easily won their last game if they hadn’t rested a large chunk of their starters, including Elliott. Elliott tied for the team lead with Dak Prescott with an AV of 16.
Jacksonville went from 5-11 in 2015 to 3-13 in 2016, even with Ramsey, who tied for third on the team (with three others) with his AV of 8.
What about the replacement question?
Perhaps the leading argument for the Ramsey pick is the idea that you can find a running back lower in the draft, whereas you can’t find cornerbacks of the quality of Jalen Ramsey lower in the draft.
A big part of this argument has been undermined above. Ezekiel Elliott is not just any running back. He’s had one of the best rookie seasons of any running back in the last 50 years. He scored a 16 in 2016. Next highest rookie was Jordan Howard, who scored a 9. But how did anyone know that Howard was the second-best running back in the draft? He wasn’t picked until the fifth round. No other rookie running back scored above a 5 last year. So, if the Cowboys passed on Elliott, they either would have had to be extremely lucky to catch Howard before someone else did later in the draft, or they would have been stuck with a runner who scored a 5. Perhaps that runner would have done better behind Dallas’ offensive line, but no runner with an AV of 5 is going to suddenly become a 16 behind Dallas’ line. And if you think Darren McFadden was the answer, he started the season on the NFI list, and only scored a 7 in 2015, when he rushed for more than 1,000 yards.
Meanwhile, while Ramsey was the highest-scoring rookie defensive back last year, he only notched an 8. Two others scored 6s, four others scored 5s, and eight others notched 4s, including Anthony Brown.
So the gap between Jalen Ramsey and a cornerback taken in the sixth round by Dallas was 4 AV, while the gap between Elliott and the next best rookie running back was 7 AV, and was 11 AV or more for all other rookie running backs.
What about longevity?
This appears to be one argument for Ramsey based on conventional wisdom. It’s one that certainly can’t be settled at this point, as both are only going into their second seasons.
But does the longevity idea hold water? Historically, the highest-rated DB is Rod Woodson, who accumulated 192 AV points in his career. Emmitt Smith is #1 among running backs at 170. So, is the long-term ceiling higher for DBs? Not really. The #2 DB is Ronnie Lott, who scored 161, which would have ranked him fourth among running backs. So there really isn’t much of a difference in the historic achievements of great running backs and great defensive backs when it comes to AV.
It’s certain that there will continue to be debate about the Cowboys’ first selection of the 2016 draft, but the issue from a an AV point of view is decidedly in Elliott’s favor. Ezekiel Elliott is already an historic running back. Jalen Ramsey is a nice defensive back, who at best may grow into being one of the better defensive backs in the NFL.
Can Ramsey catch up to Elliott? If you are a Cowboys fan, you certainly hope not. Right?