With each of the top two quarterbacks off the board and the top defensive lineman selected, the Dallas Cowboys had plenty of options remaining when the clock started on their first-round pick. Joseph Ferraiola and Dave Archibald go through all the details to attempt to figure out if drafting Ezekiel Elliot was a wise decision.
After their devastating loss to the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the 2015 NFL playoffs, the Dallas Cowboys attempted to build on their success by emphasizing defense. That offseason, they added defensive end Greg Hardy via free agency as well as cornerback Byron Jones and DE Randy Gregory with their first two picks of the draft. Owner Jerry Jones also decided running back DeMarco Murray was too pricey and let him walk to a division rival. Dallas elected to go the frugal route at running back by signing Darren McFadden to add to incumbents Joseph Randle and Lance Dunbar. After all, they arguably had the best offensive line in the NFL.
Things didn’t go as planned, and the Cowboys faced injuries from the get-go. The Cowboys’ best corner, Orlando Scandrick, was injured in training camp, star wideout Dez Bryant injured his foot in Week 1, and quarterback Tony Romo broke his clavicle in Week 2. He would return in Week 11 to deliver the Cowboys their first victory since his injury, only to re-injure his non-throwing shoulder four days later on Thanksgiving against the Carolina Panthers. Between the injuries and Murray’s absence, Dallas limped to a 4-12 record.
All of this led up to the night of the first round of the NFL Draft. The Cowboys were in a position with the fourth overall pick to take their running back of the future or add to their league-average defense. They decided to select franchise running back Ezekiel Elliott and pass on talented cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who went fifth overall to the Jaguars, among other defensive options. It was a polarizing pick by a polarizing team. Running backs have become less valuable in today’s NFL and some analysts felt selecting one in the top five was a poor use of such a high draft pick.
However, others argue Elliott isn’t just any running back. The first-round pick fits the Cowboys zone blocking scheme, and he can catch and block out of the backfield, making him one of the most well-rounded running backs taken in recent memory. Was this the right decision? Before dissecting that we’ll need some context from the 2014 and 2015 Dallas Cowboys offense and defense.
The difference between the 2014 and 2015 Cowboys offense wasn’t their running game, but their passing game. The injuries to Romo and Bryant made the offense one-dimensional as they were unable to effectively move the ball through the air. They dropped to the bottom of the league in passing yards and points scored but, their running game remained strong even without Murray and without a passing attack to prevent opposing defenses from stacking eight men in the box.
As for the defense, Dallas remained in the middle of the league in yards and points allowed. The 2015 defense gave up far fewer passing yards than the 2014 squad, but conceded more rushing yards. That is unsurprising, given that they were behind in most of their games and offenses were trying to run out the clock – they allowed the same 4.2 yards per carry in each season. Their sack rate remained below average despite the additions of Hardy and Gregory. The major difference was the amount of turnovers, as they dropped from second in the league to last. The 2015 Cowboys defense generally kept them in games, but the offense could not score enough points to win.
Their rushing totals a season ago do not justify the Elliott selection, as they faced more defenders in the box more often and ran almost as well with less talented runners. How much better can the Cowboys rushing attack get?
No one knows the answer to that question. There’s little precedent for a running game with this much talent. Left tackle Tyron Smith, center Travis Frederick, and right guard Zack Martin are all former first-round picks and among the best players at their positions. Left guard La’el Collins might have been a first-round pick as well, but teams were scared off by a murder investigation – ultimately absolving Collins – that cast uncertainty on his status at draft time. Right tackle Doug Free might be the “weak link,” but he’s a fine player in his own right. Add the multi-talented Elliott, and perhaps the Dallas running game reaches historic heights, running roughshod over the NFL.
A highly-efficient running game not only piles up yards and points, but it also wears down opposing defenses and reduces the wear on Dallas’ own defense, limiting the number of drives and plays they have to be on the field. The 2014 Cowboys finished third in time of possession and, consequently, the defense faced the fifth-fewest number of plays that season. A consistent ground game means Romo, now 36 and coming off a season in which he missed 12 games, doesn’t have to be the focal point of the offense. The Cowboys need their signal-caller healthy throughout the year.
The counter-argument is that the Cowboys run game was already excellent in 2014 with Murray, a fine back but not an elite talent, and very good in 2015 with retreads like McFadden and Randle. Even without Romo and Bryant for much of the season, the Cowboys finished 10th in time of possession in 2015 and their plays per drive remained virtually the same as in 2014 (5.82 vs 5.83).
Elliott is an excellent player, and running back is a long-term need for the Cowboys, but the team might have been better-served addressing defense in round one and tabbing a running back with a later pick. After all, part of the value of a great back is the ability to deal with penetration and make something out of nothing, and part of the value of a great offensive line is that they can open up holes that even average talents can run through. Pairing Elliott with the Dallas offensive line will certainly be effective, but it might be less than the sum of its parts.
The Dallas offensive line turned Murray into a star, and it seems a lock to do the same for Elliott, a special prospect regardless of draft position. Cowboys fans undoubtedly remember the dominant squads of the 1990’s when Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith ran for more than 17,000 yards and 150 touchdowns behind All-Pro linemen Nate Newton, Larry Allen, and Erik Williams. Those teams also featured outstanding defenses, however, finishing in the top five in points allowed seven times in one eight-season span. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli will have to pull some rabbits out of his hat to achieve that kind of performance with this group. The fourth overall pick in the draft is a rare asset, and if Dallas’s suspect defense leads to another disappointing season end for America’s Team, even a top rushing performance from Elliott will be cold comfort for Cowboys fans.