Why Ezekiel Elliott Is the 2016 NFL Draft's Top Running Back

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Why Ezekiel Elliott Is the 2016 NFL Draft's Top Running Back
Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

On Friday, New Year's Day, the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, two teams that had national title hopes deep into November, faced off in the Fiesta Bowl, a primer bowl game held in University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona.

If you didn't spend the afternoon Googling what BattleFrog, the bowl's lead sponsor, was, then you were able to catch the curtain call for the 2016 NFL draft's top running back.

Ezekiel Elliott has had an impressive overall career for the Buckeyes, but his 149-yard and four-touchdown performance in the 44-28 win against Notre Dame was something else. To put that into perspective, the Irish had previously only allowed three teams to score 28 or more points, the amount Ohio State was able to post off of Elliott touchdowns and subsequent point-after-touchdown attempts, all season.

The best part of Elliott's game is he's well-rounded. In today's NFL, running backs have to do everything, especially if they want to prove their value to general managers, convincing decision-makers they are worth a first-round pick.

Plenty will point at how the market for running backs has changed over the past decade or so. In 2005, three running backs were taken in the top five, with two, Ronnie Brown and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, both coming from Auburn University. In 2013, it was the first time in over 50 years a player at the position wasn't taken in the first round. That trend repeated in 2014.

Not all hope is lost for tailbacks, though. Two were drafted in the top 15 last class. However, the difference between their rookie years is telling.

Todd Gurley became the first rusher recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to be taken in the top 10 of any NFL draft. Compared often to Eddie George, the former Buckeye who once owned several records Elliott broke in 2015, Gurley made an immediate impact for the St. Louis Rams once he finally got on the field.

The 21-year-old, despite not starting the first three games of the 2015 season, is heading into Week 17 ranked third in the league in rushing touchdowns with 10 and rushing yards with 1,106. Not bad for a rookie.

On the other hand, Melvin Gordon was taken five picks after Gurley, and even though he started with a leg up on the Ram because he fully participated in practices heading into the regular season, he hasn't been able to get into the end zone once and has only posted 641 yards.

There's one trait you can point to being the biggest difference between the two in 2015, and it's also why the running back position has transitioned away from what it looked like when the Shaun Alexanders of the world were the rushing mold in the mid-2000s. Alexander carried the ball 370 times in 2005 during his MVP season. He only caught the ball 15 times that year. A pedestrian second-string running back now sees that many touches through the air by accident.

Yes, the attribute that most separated Gurley and Gordon was their third-down ability. Be it pass blocking or pass catching, a running back now has to do one or the other or it's hard for them to even see the field in 2015, as the passing game has fully taken over. Remember, we're only two months removed from an NFL game that featured 12 passing touchdowns and 101 total points.

It's great these backs looked up to those runners while growing up, but like Aubrey Graham on "Lord Knows", I'm wondering if they would have survived in this era. Fortunately for Elliott, he seems to break the mold of one-dimensional college backs. Danny Woodhead isn't going to get on the field over him to catch 72 balls like he did Gordon.

Elliott has displayed soft hands when needed, but he has not been asked to catch the ball too often while at Ohio State. In his career, which is heavily skewed toward his playing time of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, he snatched 57 passes. Where he does greatly excel, though, is in the blocking game.

If you're a college football fan, it was hard to avoid Braxton Miller's spin move against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the opening weekend of the season. Ohio State was coming off of a national championship. They were the consensus national title favorites heading into the regular season. The game was broadcast as a standalone on Monday night because the NFL wasn't kicking off until that Thursday. All eyes were on the Buckeyes.

Here's what everyone missed, though: Miller, the quarterback-turned-Percy Harvin athlete, never would have been able to make the highlight play without extra effort from Elliott. Our running back lined up in the backfield, then took a Virginia Tech safety to the ground, freeing up the deep portion of the field, and then when Miller pulled up to turn up field, Elliott stonewalled a linebacker who was chasing Miller from behind, a defender who could have made a play on the ball-carrier during his spin-cycle attempt.

Without that extra hustle and effort, one of the most exciting plays of the season likely turns into a casual run with Miller getting pulled down during his dancing.

Urban Meyer's offenses have had a history of characters. The 2007 Florida Gators roster alone featured Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Harvin, Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez and the Pouncey twins. There's one thing you can say about all of those players, though: Whatever you think about them as people, they have always given maximum effort on the field. Elliott follows that mold.

Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones was posterized everywhere as a big-mouth, "I didn't come here to play school" man-child who thought too much of himself over the past season, taking a lot of the spotlight off of Elliott, but there were a couple of times the back spoke his mind.

Elliott, who cracked the 100-yard mark in 15 straight games heading into the Michigan State matchup, wasn't happy when he only touched the ball 12 times in the Buckeyes' only loss of 2015, and he let the world know it: "How we lost, I just feel like we weren't put in the right opportunity to win this game, we weren't put in the right situations to win this game. I don't think Michigan State was better than us. They weren't. We didn't execute."

After his tremendous bowl effort, he took to Instagram to "at" the NCAA, college football's overlooking government. It's clear Elliott can talk the talk and walk the walk. We have seen plenty of diva receivers in recent years, but Zeke may find himself in a unique corner of backs, the beloved hero for his hometown fanbase and the mortal enemy of anyone else, including the gatekeepers of sportsmanship.

You're still going to draft him on your fantasy team, though.

Whatever he's doing to keep that mental edge is working, but there's more than an edge that puts him among the names of Gurley and George above the shoulders. His patience is also a crucial reason for his success. He's never in a rush, but he's never lagging behind, either.

Most of the NFL's offenses work out of single-back formations, which makes misdirection plays, such as the counter run, difficult to execute. George used to gash teams on those plays while playing under Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. Now at St. Louis, Fisher is slicing opponents with Gurley using the same counter concepts, just instead of having a two-back misdirection look, he's instead using receiver Tavon Austin as an end-around threat.

If paired with a movable chess piece at the next level, Elliott could have the same type of success Gurley is having early on. As Chris B. Brown, better known as Smart Football, pointed out, Elliott's nearly 50-yard touchdown run against the Irish on Friday came off of a fly-counter concept. In this scenario, Miller was the Austin type.

In the Buckeyes' last game of their 2014 season, the national championship against the Oregon Ducks, you saw plenty of counter runs and patience by Elliott too. Everyone from Ohio State sites, to Oregon sites and from small X and O blogs to Smart Football would use the back's 246-yard game in the sport's largest platform to prove how important power running was going to be in the near future.

The NFL reflects college football. Since practice time is being restricted more and more at the professional level, and their rosters are significantly smaller than college teams', they have to work with what they're being handed by the lower levels of football. Right now, the running backs who are able to thrive at the next level almost always either have great patience or third-down ability. Elliott has both and the athletic potential to land in the top 15.

If your team is looking for a back in the coming draft, cross your fingers for the 6'0", 225-pound Buckeye who looks set to follow in the footsteps of Eddie George. He won't turn 21 years old until the end of July, and he already has proved he has the talent to rank among the top 32 humans in his profession on Earth.

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