There’s been debate, believe it or not, whether the Dallas Cowboys maximized their value selecting Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the 4th overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft instead of taking a player at a more valued position like cornerback. Yet, with less than half the season to go I think it’s clear the Cowboys made the correct pick on draft night.
In theory selecting a cornerback would have been more valuable than a running back with the 4th pick, but that doesn’t mean the pick would have translated to elite on field performance and wins like Elliott has. Dallas attempted to make an already strong rushing attack stronger and it’s worked thus far. The Cowboys are second the league in rushing yards per game with 156.7 and are tied for third with the Tennessee Titans in yards per carry at 4.7. This is the formula that helped the Cowboys to a 12-4 record in 2014 with DeMarco Murray running the ball for Dallas.
Dallas believed Elliott would help prolong the career of their franchise quarterback, Tony Romo. After an injury to the veteran’s vertebrae in the third week of the pre-season, Elliott is helping fellow rookie Dak Prescott run the Cowboys offense behind a stellar offensive line. With Prescott playing quarterback it could be said that a strong ground game is more pertinent than if Romo was playing. Elliott has taken the pressure off of Prescott from having to throw his way to victories and instead allows the Cowboys to play a balanced style of offense.
In addition to complementing the passing game, Elliott is helping the Cowboys defense stay off the field with the Cowboys leading the NFL in time of possession, averaging 33:08 per game. Controlling the clock has masked some of the Cowboys defensive deficiencies. With injuries in the secondary to Morris Claiborne and Barry Church, they’ll need to continue to control the clock.
Elliott’s had an outstanding rookie season through the midway point, leading the league in rushing with 1,102 yards and averaging 4.9 yards per carry. It took Elliott time to adjust to the NFL, averaging 2.55 and 3.95 yards per carry in his first two starts, fumbling twice. Since then he’s arguably been the best rusher in the league. It’s tough to believe that another player could have been taken with the 4th overall pick and would have had an impact like Elliott’s had.
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One of Elliott’s most impressive runs of the year came against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 4 with 10:00 left in the 4th quarter. The Cowboys offense was in 12 personnel in a singleback formation. At the snap the Cowboys offensive line moves laterally to the left indicating a zone blocking scheme. When Elliott receives the handoff he patiently diagnoses which hole to run through. He recognizes if he continues in the direction he’s going in, he’ll be tackled for a loss. Elliott decides to cut it to the inside behind Ronald Leary (#65) who sealed off a defender and then Travis Frederick (#72) who also sealed off a defender creating a wide path for Elliott to run.
As he’s running through space Elliott displays both awareness and elusiveness. He makes both nose tackle Mike Purcell (#64) and safety Jaquiski Tartt (#29) miss with one swift move. Elliott is now at full speed and finishes the run strong barreling his way for extra yards before being brought down.
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Elliott proved that he can also be a physical back that is aiming to punish next level defenders. With 12:30 remaining in the 4th quarter against the Green Bay Packers with the Cowboys up 20-9, Dallas is lined up in 13 personnel. On what seems to be a split zone run, Prescott (#4) motions Lucky Whitehead (#13) across the formation before snapping the ball. He hands off to Elliott who runs the counter. The line moves to the left laterally with Jason Witten (#82) attempting to block against the flow of the offensive line. Witten blocks Julius Peppers (#56) on the edge for a moment, but Peppers is able to break away from Witten and attempt to make a play on Elliott.
However, when Elliott gets to the edge he stiff arms Peppers to break the tackle and is too quick to the outside for linebacker Jake Ryan (#47). He’s then met by cornerback LaDarius Gunter (#36), but Elliott realizes he’s already gone low for a tackle giving Elliott the opportunity to hurdle him. What’s incredible about this play is when Elliott is in midair he braces for contact and is able to maintain his balance to land upright and run for the first down with four Packers defenders needed to push him out of bounds.
The Dallas running game is much improved from the one in 2015. It’s potentially better than 2014 when Murray led the league in rushing. Losing Murray proved to be a tough loss for the Cowboys’ identity in 2015. The yards after contact that Murray gained in 2014 and Elliott is currently gaining are extremely valuable. He’s shown elite level traits thus far in his rookie season. The offensive line has done a great job opening up rushing lanes for Elliott to run through, but as Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett says, “the runner matters.”
Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Scott Linehan and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jet Sweep Screen, the offense Doug Pederson will run with the Philadelphia Eagles, and the impending QB decision in Dallas.
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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.