Ezekiel Elliott was the most talented running back to be drafted over the last three drafts. That includes names like Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, and Dalvin Cook. And next year LSU’s Derrius Guice and Penn State’s Saquon Barkley will look to knock Zeke off the top of the running back draft mountain. Elliott being drafted fourth overall in 2016 made many around the NFL scratch their heads. It wasn’t due to a lack of talent on Elliott’s part, but the conflict of spending that much draft value on what is often said to be one of the least valuable positions on the field. Yet, the Cowboys were confident in their draft preparation and took Elliott, which proved to pay off in a big way. Combining the best offensive line in the NFL with the top running back prospect in years proved to work quite nicely as Elliott led the league in rushing with 1,631 yards and yards per game with 108.7.
As Dallas taught us this past season, spending that sort of draft capital on a RB works in the right situation. For example, it may or may not work for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who selected Leonard Fournette fourth overall this draft, as they lack the top-tier offensive line that Dallas possesses. Context is key to any selection and how it grades out years down the road. It’s also better to use draft value on a running back than spending on one in free agency once the mileage is racked up.
Elliott’s benefits to this roster are profound. The initial reasoning of the selection was that Elliott would provide relief for an aging Tony Romo – who was coming off a season in which he injured his collarbone twice, missing 12 games in 2015. He would also allow the Cowboys to control the football for long periods of time and spell their dubious defense. Yet, when Romo went down in a preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks with a back injury Elliott’s talents proved to be transcendent. Elliott and fellow rookie Dak Prescott’s games complimented each other extremely well allowing the Cowboys to finish fifth in total offense in 2016 with a 13-3 record – 1st in the NFC.
Barring injury to either Elliott or Prescott the Cowboys starting backfield should be consistent with last year’s. However, there are differences in Dallas’s rushing attack, mainly on the offensive line. Left guard Ronald Leary, who filled in for La’el Collins after he suffered an injury early in 2016 signed with the Denver Broncos for four years, $36 million and starting right tackle Doug Free retired. Despite losing two fifths of their offensive line, the Cowboys have been calm about their prized unit. Collins is back from injury and will return to play right tackle – a position he played while he was in college at LSU. This leaves left guard up for competition between Chaz Green, Jonathan Cooper, Byron Bell, and Joe Looney. There certainly are question marks surrounding left guard and right tackle in Dallas heading into the 2017 season, but Elliott is enough of a reason to be confident in whoever wins those competitions in camp.
The front runners for those positions – Collins, Green, and Cooper are all talented replacements. Collins would have been a first round pick in 2015 if not for a murder case prior to the draft that he was not a suspect in. Green was a third round pick in 2015 and Cooper was a first round pick in 2013 who has had his struggles in Arizona, New England, and Cleveland. However, if the line were not to play as well as they have recently because of the new additions, I believe Elliott’s abilities are enough to make up for the deficiencies. Having a running back who can quickly identify the proper rushing lanes and holes to hit is extremely valuable. To illustrate what I mean – suppose Leary can maintain his block for longer than Green, but Green can still hold his block long enough. Well, you want Leary playing for you because he can hold his block longer, but maybe Green’s efforts will suffice since the runner in the backfield can process at a high speed and hit the hole quicker than your average back. Leary is expensive to keep when you need to re-sign Zack Martin in a year. It might be more cost effective to pay the running back while he’s young along with three core linemen than invest heavily in five linemen.
The Cowboys have also shown the ability to sign potentially talented linemen at a lower cost. Dallas’s line has an NBA-style feel to them. It’s like in Golden State and Cleveland where veterans take the minimum to play with Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson or LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love. The Cowboys have a big three of their own in Tyron Smith, Travis Frederick, and Zack Martin. All three are going to be in Dallas for a long time. It seems like they’ve been able to get other potentially talented players to come back up their regular starters. Now that two starters have left for greener pastures, those talents move into the starting lineup. I’m not sure Collins signs as an UDFA if the Cowboys line doesn’t have a strong reputation. Same with Cooper as he’s basically a bust trying to learn how to improve. How better a way to do that than surrounding yourself with the best? Now add in blocking for an elite runner and it could bring more of these types of low-cost projects to Dallas.
In terms of long-term roster construction, the Cowboys may have selected Elliott planning for the potential of losing parts of their offensive line to free agency or retirement knowing he could mask any potential deficiencies. Expect Elliott to impact all phases of the game in 2017 by running the ball effectively to convert first downs, catching the ball out of the backfield, blocking, and drawing more defenders into the box to take the pressure off Prescott throwing downfield.