As the playoffs advance deeper, more teams and fans are looking to the 2016 NFL draft. It’s the time of year to build hope for next season, and Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott is one elite player who will be available.
Finding above-average to great players via the draft is critical for team success. Not only do homegrown players offer long-term control for the franchise, but they also offer a cheap alternative to the free-agency route. The risk of signing free agents is high because many are damaged goods by the time they are free to test the open market.
One position that has been devalued in the draft and free agency is running back. There is a misnomer that backs are easily replaceable based on instances when backups come in and play fairly well for short periods of time. But the reality is that star running backs still have immense value for a team.
As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Luke Easterling pointed out, the returns for highly drafted running backs since 2005 have been solid. Of course, there are busts like any position, but the numbers don’t lie. Fifty-two different running backs have finished in the top 10 in rushing yards since 2005. Thirty-three of those players were drafted in the first two rounds.
The 2016 class does not look overly strong at this juncture. While early entrants are still trickling in, there is one running back who has everything necessary to be a superstar at the position. Just like Todd Gurley in 2015, Elliott has a rare skill set and is worth investing a top-10 pick to get.
Elliott’s production in his two-plus years under Urban Meyer was simply incredible. The 6’0”, 225-pound back is graceful as he is fast and powerful as he is calculated. His well-rounded game and on-field intelligence are what make him far and away the best running back prospect this season and as good as any running back prospect from the 2015, 2016 and even the potentially legendary 2017 class. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah described Elliott as a "pretty complete" back:
Zeke Elliott is pretty complete as a back. He can do everything.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 1, 2016
His 149 yards against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl were a dazzling end to a fantastic collegiate career. It was the 22nd time Elliott ran for over 100 yards in 35 contests, and five of those games featured a 200-yard performance. He has sustained excellence despite being the focal point of Ohio State's offense.
Numbers aren’t the best predictor of NFL success, though. Traits and talent are. Elliott wins with his unique blend of nuance, God-given talent and mental toughness. He’s put in the work to dominate in areas young running backs rarely have experience in.
When toting the rock, Elliott is a fierce and explosive player. He owns the line of scrimmage with his subtle foot movement, allowing him to draw linebackers closer and create an impossible angle for the defender to make the tackle. This level of nuance is rare to find in a back, especially on a consistent basis.
What was alarming with recent first-round backs Trent Richardson and Melvin Gordon, who have both struggled in the NFL, was how inefficient they were with their feet behind the line of scrimmage. They didn’t trust their blocking, which can be difficult to see in college because of the talent difference in the trenches.
While Elliott bounces outside at times, he is far from dependent on leaving his assigned gap. There’s also a certain level of creativity that is acceptable for backs, and Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson is a great example of this. Peterson doesn’t hesitate to get outside if he sees the advantageous angle on the edge instead of plowing into a pile for a marginal gain.
Elliott’s creativity is similar to Peterson’s, even if he isn’t quite the freakish athlete that “All Day” is. Few backs at Peterson's size have that level of fluidity, let alone his acceleration and body control. Nevertheless, Elliott compares favorably, even if that is not the comparison I’d go with.
Dancing in the backfield was a huge red flag for Gordon at Wisconsin, and his rookie season was plagued with stone feet when there wasn’t a clear running lane. That may improve for Gordon, but it’s not an issue for Elliott. He only shuffles his feet when necessary to allow his blocking to develop and rarely ends up flat-footed near defenders.
The way Elliott understands leverage and spacing can be the difference between the loss of yards and a modest gain. Offenses can stomach neutral plays so long as there’s the threat of a bigger chunk at some point. Elliott excels at squeezing extra lemon juice from a previously used lemon.
Many different factors play into the creation of yards after contact. Balance and the ability to withstand hits are important. Core strength helps runners continue their stride after being hit. But so is the foresight to set up the defender so the hits aren’t straight on.
A great example of this is seen to the left. Elliott has a clear-cut lane off the right guard, and he makes the cut about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. His patience to wait until the guard completes his pulling action exaggerates the strong-side sell, whereas an instantaneous cut as soon as he received the handoff would have tipped off the linebackers and sold his decision too quickly.
Once Elliott shakes off the initial contact at the line of scrimmage, which was more of an arm-tackle than anything else, he’s on track to run directly into or through the linebacker. Elliott expertly dips his inside shoulder to get the lower pad level, and it allows him to easily shed the tackle. His great acceleration is then on display. In what could have been just a short gain, Elliott picks up 15 yards.
Between the tackles, Elliott has everything needed to be a tremendous back in the NFL. He’s smart and instinctive in reading his keys, can take contact and continue churning his lower body and sets up the next defender while still dealing with his nearest would-be tackler. He forced 63 missed tackles in 265 carries just in 2015, per CFBFilmRoom.com, so he’s clearly not pigeonholed as a speed or power back.
While Ohio State had tremendous success using Elliott’s talent with inside-zone play calls that get him rolling downfield quickly, Elliott also starred when he was asked to read outside-zone runs. On outside-zone plays, the back is asked to read the defense and correctly bounce, bang or bend. See below for an illustration of what those terms mean.
His ability to work in a one-cut scheme is directly due to his excellent vision and great acceleration off his plant foot. Since outside-zone plays get the defense going one direction, it’s key for a back to have the speed to bounce the run off the tight end or tackle or be able to cut upfield or inside, depending on where the lane is. Elliott consistently reads this correctly, as in this example here.
Elliott has been exposed to inside-zone, power-gap and outside-zone runs at Ohio State. His speed, power, quickness, vision and patience make him a fit for whatever scheme an offense wants to run. While a mixed scheme that runs both power gap and outside zone would be perfect for Elliott, only a few teams have the personnel to use a versatile run scheme.
Part of Elliott’s immense value is that he isn’t limited to one specific style of play. Especially when compared to his draft peers, such as Derrick Henry or Kenneth Dixon, Elliott’s ability to challenge defenses north/south as well as east/west is why his value is unlike a vast majority of running back prospects. PFF College (via Tod Palmer of the Kansas City Star) provided an eye-opening stat for Elliott that demonstrates his exceptional ability to protect the quarterback:
Random: According to @PFF_College, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott didn’t allow a sack, hit or even a hurry on 103 pass blocking snaps.— Tod Palmer (@todpalmer) January 11, 2016
The most surprising talent Elliott developed at Ohio State is his ability to pass block. While almost every rookie back has limited experience in blitz pickup, Elliott absolutely excels as an extra blocker. He uses leverage and his hands as well as any prospect I’ve evaluated in five years. His ability to read blitzers and mirror their movement is second to none in college football.
Elliott is also well-known for his run blocking. Ohio State often used Elliott as the fullback on quarterback draws. A 225-pound running back shouldn’t be able to move defensive linemen consistently, but he can.
This ability will help him be an immediate NFL starter. Coaches won’t worry about Elliott’s ability as a three-down back with his reliability on passing downs. Compared even to Gurley, Elliott is in a class of his own as far as a complete running back prospect. It even stems into Elliott’s pass-catching ability.
In three years, Elliott notched 58 receptions, 449 yards and one touchdown. Those numbers aren’t going to blow anyone away, but he was a reliable player who averaged 7.7 yards per catch. Most importantly, Elliott had just one drop in 2015 in 27 total targets, per CFBFilmRoom.com.
Having three-down talent is what makes solid backs into great ones. The cherry on top is his ball-carrying ability. Elliott had just three lost fumbles in his college career.
With decent blocking, Elliott can carry an NFL offense to respectable levels. If he’s paired with a quality quarterback, then expect a great offense to form. While it’s possible to find a quality back later in the draft, Elliott is a rare running back prospect who will instantly boost an offense.
The lack of depth in the 2016 class in general, not just at running back, also is a reason Elliott should be a high draft pick. If he falls into the teens, he will be a steal. In four years, it is likely Elliott will be a top-10 player in terms of talent and production.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com, unless noted otherwise.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.