The Dallas Cowboys have found their running back of the future, selecting Ezekiel Elliott out of Ohio State with the No. 4 pick of the 2016 NFL Draft. Elliott is the first running back off the board and was easily the top-ranked running back in this year's draft and one of the best overall prospects, coming in at No. 7 on SB Nation's big board.
Elliott, a four-star recruit out of St. Louis, committed to Ohio State in 2013. With Carlos Hyde entrenched as the starting back, Elliott played sparingly as a true freshman, finishing with just 30 carries for 262 yards and three total touchdowns.
In 2014, Elliott took over as the full-time starter and immediately made his mark on the college football landscape. He became a true every-down workhorse, carrying the ball 273 times in 15 games for 1,878 yards and 18 touchdowns. He had a huge coming-out party in the postseason that began when he gashed Wisconsin for 220 yards and two touchdowns in the Big Ten Championship.
In the College Football Playoff, Elliott was once again a monster, rushing for a combined 476 yards and six touchdowns in the two Playoff games and helping the Buckeyes win the national championship. His biggest run came in the Sugar Bowl, where he sealed a win over Alabama with this 85-yard touchdown run.
After a breakout sophomore year, Elliott entered 2015 with huge expectations. He mostly lived up to the hype, rushing 289 times for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns. He led the Big Ten in rushing yards, touchdowns and yards from scrimmage, taking home the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and finishing eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Elliott saved his best for last, dismantling Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl with four touchdowns and 149 yards on 27 carries.
Elliott made some waves toward the end of the season, calling out his team's play calling after Ohio State lost to Michigan State. He had just 12 carries for 33 yards in the loss, which effectively ended the Buckeyes' chances of winning the Big Ten.
"I'm disappointed in the play calling. I'm disappointed in the situations that we were put in, and I wish it all played out differently ... It just hurts. It hurts a lot because of how we lost. I feel like we just weren't put in the right opportunity to win this game."
Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer did not disagree with Elliott, although he did say "that's not the place" for him to air his grievances. Elliott apologized and everyone moved on, although Ohio State did make some changes, moving offensive coordinator Ed Warinner to the booth and renewing efforts to run the ball. The next week, Ohio State destroyed arch rival Michigan 42-13, with Elliott getting 30 carries for 214 yards and two touchdowns. While NFL teams likely asked Elliott about this whole episode at the Combine, chances are good that many of them didn't care that much.
During the NFL Combine, Elliott talked up his ability to play on every down, including his elite blocking skills:
"I'm a guy that can play three downs," Elliott said on Friday. "You don't have to take me off the field. I value blocking more than anything. I obviously love to run the ball and I think I have great hands out of the backfield."
Elliott is one of the most complete running back prospects the NFL has seen since ... well, since Todd Gurley last year. But Elliott might be more like Adrian Peterson. He's a true three-down back who checks all the boxes -- speed, power, pass-catching ability and pass blocking.
The NFL Draft hasn't been too kind to running backs in recent years. Until Gurley and Melvin Gordon in 2015, there hasn't been a running back taken in the first round since 2012, when Trent Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson all went in the top 32. Four years later, Martin is the only one still in the league. Elliott and Gurley will be looking to break the recent trend of top-10 running backs busting in the pros.
If there's one concern about Elliott, it's the massive workload he had in college. The 20-year-old piled up 650 total touches at Ohio State, which is a lot of mileage on his body already. But that's just a minor concern for a player who has shown remarkable durability so far.
Ohio State blog Land-Grant Holy Land had this to say about Elliott's NFL potential:
His frame is good for an NFL running back, and while he can be a bruising back, if he gets into the secondary, it's over. He's truly a complete back, and that's not so typical in today's NFL, where you have one or the other in a single back. His vision is one of his stronger assets, which will come in handy even more when he's playing on Sundays, where decisions must be made even quicker.
The Cowboys lost DeMarco Murray in free agency a year ago and didn't have the greatest situation with Darren McFadden filling in. While McFadden eclipsed 1,000 yards, the aging back has long had injury concerns and is at his best as a complementary back, which he'll be able to do with Elliott in the backfield as well.