When I think of true to form franchise running backs, names like Adrian Peterson, Marshawn Lynch, Le’Veon Bell, and even Todd Gurley come to mind. A few might say you can find running backs anywhere throughout the draft that can get the job done. After all, this generation of the NFL has seen a huge transitioning away from elite running games and by extension, the workhorse running back. This is not to say running the ball has been rendered obsolete. In fact, recent success will show you if you have a running game you have a chance.
The concept of a strong running game lends itself to the ability to manage the clock better, including opening up a multi-faceted offensive assault on defenses. For example, think back to when Adrian Peterson carried a Christian Ponder led Vikings team to the playoffs in 2012, a season in which ultimately garnered Peterson MVP accolades. So it’s safe to say AP is/was the face of the franchise and a running game was needed for them to stay afloat. Another example would be Russell Wilson’s breakout year in Seattle, it’s safe to say, Marshawn Lynch was the face of the Seahawks organization and without it a Seahawks team being led by an underdeveloped Wilson would have faced a much different season. Enter Ezekiel Elliott. If there is a running back in this class that possesses true franchise back upside it’s Ezekiel Elliot. The 6’0 225 pound back out of “THEE” Ohio State University. Elliott showcases amazing talent with raw power, speed, and quickness. The balance of those three things, along with great vision, are the foundational intangibles which tend to go hand in hand with great NFL running backs.
Elliot started showing signs that he could be something special mid-way through his collegiate sophomore season, with a breakout game against Cincinnati, posting 182 yards with a touchdown. In fact, over the final five games of his sophomore season, Elliott carried the ball 106 times for 924 yards which was good for an average of 8.7 yards per carry…WOW! What was even more impressive was his 11 touchdowns over that same span, including none more important than the four scores he tallied in the National Championship game. It was truly an amazing performance as he torched an Oregon defense, who was led by future 1st round pick, Arik Armstead along with a likely 2016 top 15 pick in Deforest Buckner. What impressed me most about Elliott is his exceptional field vision. I rarely see him miss the opportunity to get to the second level and even when he doesn’t he still makes something out of nothing. Every time Elliott touches the ball there’s a chance he will take it to the house.
Elliott’s ability to make people miss and find the crease is really something special to watch. In fact, the monster run he had not only led the Buckeyes to a national championship, but Elliott gained the nations attention and a new chapter was effectively being written for his future NFL prospects. Elliott was such a game-changer that he even had opposing team creating their defensive game plans around simply trying to slow him down. Nevertheless, even with drawing the extra attention Elliott continued his dominance game after game. Fun fact; Elliot had only a single game all season where he ran for less than 100 yards. Ultimately, he ended his junior campaign with 1,821 yards and 23 TDs.
Zeroing in on Zeke
Now let’s get to the tale of the tape. The way Zeke moves through the hole and in open space are both really impressive. He finds ways to get skinny through the hole and if he can’t do that he’ll plow his way for extra yards. One run that really impressed me though was this one where he showed great balance and quickness to maneuver his way through defenders for the score.
As you can see his exceptional balance allows him to make sudden moves and cuts and he always keeps his feet underneath him while never getting ahead of himself.Now when Zeke gets to the second level he has an unparalleled ability to make defenders miss and then it’s off to the races. What really hurts a defense is giving up explosive runs, and Zeke has that homerun speed that kills. He can explode through the hole like a mad man and tends to out run a lot of defensive backs.
All the tape that I’ve seen Zeke is often carrying a pile of defenders with him for a first down. He has a knack at getting those extra few yards that can make a huge difference throughout a game. I also always tend see him fall forward after any sort of contact which serves him well in gaining that extra few yards. Additionally, he has that quick decisiveness when he hits a hole on a full head of steam, but also the ability to use his eyes and instincts to let the play develop, which displays his patience as a runner. One of the things I am most anticipating is when the NFL combine comes around because his speed and agility drills are going to impress the scouts in a big way. One interesting side note which many are not aware of is that Zeke was a state champion in the 100-meter dash in High School.
I’m trying to come up with a comparison for Ezekiel and it’s a tough one to pin point. He’s either “this guy” but faster or “that guy” but stronger. Ultimately, the best player comparison I can come up with is a faster, quicker, Arian Foster, with half the catching ability. Although that lone deficiency gives me the willies I realize this is a facet to his game that can be coached at the NFL level. In the end, there simply isn’t much to dislike about Ezekiel. I truly do think he could be a three-down, workhorse back if he works on a few areas.
The Bad? What Bad?
Although Elliott is representative of a future dominating running back at the NFL level there do remain areas in which he needs to improve. Namely, pass protection. Elliott tends to whiff, in pass protection, more than I would like to see. I’m not sure I would want him to pick up a blitz from Clay Matthews right now, but it’s definitely something that can be fixed. Ultimately, he just needs to show more willingness to thump a guy coming through the A gap, instead of trying to stop a guy with an extended hand. Another thing that really bugs me about Elliott is his inability to switch hands when he’s running with the ball. In watching his tape, he tends to hold the ball in his right hand and right hand only. That is something you have to be able to do at the next level, however, this is nitpicking as its certainly a coachable area. Other than that I really love Ezekiel in this draft and I am certain a team is going to find their franchise back in Elliot this year. Akin to Todd Gurley, he just has that running ability that you only see come around once in a blue moon. I wouldn’t rate him as high as I did Gurley last year, but I still think he is a top 15 overall talent in this year’s draft class.