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Meet Ezekiel Elliott, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top RB Heading into Next Season

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIMay 30, 2015

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Drafting a running back in the first round has become taboo in recent years, but that shouldn’t affect Ezekiel Elliott in the 2016 NFL draft. Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon were each top-15 picks in 2015, and Elliott might be a better prospect than both of them.

If you watched Ohio State’s run to the inaugural College Football Playoff National Championship this past season, you already know that Elliott is a special talent. While Cardale Jones became an instant sensation after replacing injured starter J.T. Barrett at quarterback, the true star of Ohio State’s offense during its title run was Elliott, who ran for 696 yards and eight touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ final three games alone.

If Elliott can continue to produce at that level for the entirety of his upcoming junior season, the man they call Zeke should be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, assuming he declares.

 

Elliott = The Complete Running Back?

Elliott has just about all the traits NFL scouts covet at the running back position, and that starts with his combination of size, speed and power. At 6’0” and 225 pounds, Elliott has both the strength to run through defenders and the acceleration to run away from them.

While Elliott might not be considered a true power back—especially when compared to the 2015 NFL draft’s other top running back prospects, Alabama’s Derrick Henry and Pittsburgh’s James Conner—he has certainly proven to be a tough man to tackle.

Elliott shows no hesitancy to take on contact, and by effectively lowering his shoulder into defenders and keeping his legs moving, he is frequently able to continue through it. Even when defenders are able to bring Elliott down, he consistently falls forward to gain extra yardage.

As one longtime NFL executive described the running back to Fox Sports Ohio's Zac Jackson, Elliott is "a (expletive) bowling ball."

"He breaks people," the executive told Jackson.

The ability Elliott has to run through contact is not simply a matter of size and strength, but also a demonstration of his balance. Between bouncing off hits and hopping over bodies on the field, Elliott has frequently exhibited a great ability to keep himself upright and at speed in situations where many other running backs would falter.

A prime example of Elliott’s balance came on the following play from last year’s Ohio State game against Rutgers. Despite being hit low with enough force to be knocked backward, Elliott (No. 15) was able to shake off the contact, keep his feet and then accelerate to the outside right for a six-yard gain.

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As for Elliott’s speed, that never should have been in doubt. During his senior year of high school, Elliott was the Missouri state champion in four track events—the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles, all of which showcase an athlete’s ability to run fast.

That speed has translated to the football field.

There were numerous examples of Elliott leaving defenders in the dust during the 2014 season, but the most spectacular of them all came in the fourth quarter of the Sugar Bowl, when Elliott ripped off an 85-yard touchdown that gave the Buckeyes a two-touchdown lead over Alabama with less than four minutes to play in the game.

Another impressive highlight came in the fourth quarter of Ohio State’s blowout win over Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game. If you watch the following clip closely, you’ll notice that Elliott’s shoe was knocked off by a Badgers defender roughly 20 yards downfield, yet that didn’t stop the speedster from finishing with a 60-yard gain (Elliott also had an 81-yard touchdown run earlier in the game):

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Elliott reaches his top gear quickly and is able to make smooth cuts in space to navigate his way between running lanes. He is not the type of running back who will alternate speeds and make defenders miss with ankle-breaking moves, but his ability to change directions without slowing down can be just as dangerous in how it enables him to run by and away from defenders.

An example of that ability came on Elliott’s 33-yard touchdown run against Oregon in the national title game. After hitting a hole cleanly at the line of scrimmage, Elliott made multiple cuts downfield to bounce away from defenders, then simply used his speed to run away from the last line of defense and finish the job.

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While Elliott typically looks to attack defenses north and south between the tackles, he has the speed to break runs out to the perimeter and turn the corner.

On multiple occasions in 2014, including the following 10-yard touchdown against Penn State, Elliott started his run up the middle, but after failing to find an inside running lane, he bounced to the outside and ended up breaking off a big gain because of his top gear and his ability to shift into it quickly.

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The one quality as a runner that might be less than stellar for Elliott is his vision. His need to find holes himself became increasingly less important down the stretch last season, as his offensive line did an excellent job opening lanes for him. Elliott will need to become a step quicker in diagnosing defensive fronts and hitting holes out of the backfield to excel in the NFL.

With that being said, Elliott has all the tools to quickly emerge as one of the best runners in the NFL once he gets there. The running back should also have a great shot at being college football’s leading rusher in 2015; he finished third in the Football Bowl Subdivision in rushing yards last season, with 1,878 yards, and more than 1,000 of those yards came within the Buckeyes’ final six games.

Of course, there is more to being a complete running back than just being a complete runner. To truly meet that criterium, one must also provide reliability as a pass-catcher and as a blocker.

While Elliott has room to improve upon his consistency in both of those capacities, he has demonstrated competency in both areas and flashed brilliance as a blocker.

Having caught 28 passes for 220 yards last season, Elliott will not enter his junior season—which is widely expected to be his last before going pro—with the same concerns that Melvin Gordon faced last year about his receiving ability.

Elliott has suffered some occasional drops—including one on what would have been a sure-fire six-yard touchdown in the Big Ten Championship Game—but for the most part, he has exhibited reliable hands.

Whether Elliott can be a downfield receiving threat remains a question mark. The vast majority of his receptions came on swing passes around the line of scrimmage.

As a blocker, Elliott demonstrates the same never-give-up attitude that he does with the ball in his hands. While he remains prone to making blocking mistakes, which is typical for young running backs, he consistently gives effort and does not shy away from throwing his body into defenders.

Given his combination of burst and size, Elliott has an ability to quickly generate momentum that can enable him to knock an opponent down.

One example of Elliott doing so came against Penn State last fall. In the following clip, you can see Elliott explode into Penn State linebacker Brandon Bell and turn into a brick wall in the process, as he lowered his shoulder to flatten Bell backward, buying time for J.T. Barrett to work in the pocket.

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Elliott also exhibits an ability to connect with defenders out in space and make blocks outside the pocket, like he did on the following two plays against Rutgers.

In the first clip, Elliott maneuvers outside to get his hands on an edge defender and push him backward, enabling Barrett to run inside him for a first down and a big gain.

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In the subsequent video, Elliott makes a cut block in front of Barrett as he rolls right, which buys the quarterback time to throw a red-zone touchdown pass to tight end Nick Vannett.

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Elliott can be overpowered at times when trying to block defensive linemen—that, again, is fairly typical for a running back. He does need to work, however, on timing up his cut blocks more consistently, as he had some issues with whiffing on pass-rushers in the pocket and giving them clear shots at the quarterback.

As NFL teams start to shine the spotlight on Elliott in 2015, scouts will want to see him improve as both a receiver and blocker. He is already far enough along in both of those areas, however, that neither should take away from how high his running abilities could propel him in the draft.

 

How Early Could Elliott Be Drafted?

Although it is evident that NFL teams are becoming increasingly reluctant to make big investments in running backs, this past offseason proved that a player with star talent at the position can still be a hot commodity.

The St. Louis Rams used the No. 10 overall pick in the 2015 draft to select Gurley, while the San Diego Chargers traded up to the 15th slot to draft Gordon. Those draft selections came on the heels of earlier offseason moves that included the Philadelphia Eagles giving a five-year, $40 million contract to DeMarco Murray and the Buffalo Bills giving the same total money to LeSean McCoy after acquiring him in a trade with the Eagles.

Murray and McCoy are proven commodities who have each led the NFL in rushing yards in one of the past two seasons, but the high draft positions of Gurley and Gordon are a good sign for Elliott, who could potentially be valued even more highly in 2016 than those two backs were this year.

Gurley is arguably a more special talent than Elliott, but he was coming off a torn ACL that he suffered last November; presumably, Gurley might have been selected even earlier in the draft had he been healthy.

Elliott also has a mild injury concern—he broke his wrist last August, and had to undergo another surgery this offseason—but that didn't stop him from having a breakout 2014 season, and shouldn't affect his draft stock unless further injury causes him to miss time in 2015.

"I was just out there basically playing with one hand. I was one-handed," Elliott told reporters in April, according to NFL.com's Mike Huguenin. "I couldn't carry the ball in my left hand, I couldn't punch with it. I couldn't do much with it. I was pretty handicapped."

Gordon was the most prolific runner in college football last season, but there were greater questions about how his game will translate to the NFL—specifically, his ability to run between the tackles and ability to contribute on passing downs—than Elliott should face.

It’s no guarantee that Elliott will be the first back selected in the 2016 NFL draft. Some teams could prefer the aforementioned Derrick Henry, a massive, bulldozing back at 6’3” and 243 pounds who will have a chance to break out in his junior season at Alabama following the departure of T.J. Yeldon to the NFL. There is also a full season for other running backs to emerge from obscurity—just as Elliott did this past season—and make themselves top draft prospects.

Ultimately, though, it only takes one team to fall in love with Elliott for him to be one of the first players drafted next year. With all the potential he has to be an elite NFL running back, he should not face a lengthy wait to hear his name called, assuming he performs up to expectations in his junior year and decides to move on to the NFL as top running back prospects typically do after their third playing seasons.

This article is part of a series on the projected top prospects at each position for the 2016 NFL draft. Also read:

Meet Jared Goff, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top QB Heading into Next Season

Meet Tyler Boyd, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top WR Heading into Next Season

Meet Evan Engram, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top TE Heading into Next Season

Meet Ronnie Stanley, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top OL Heading into Next Season

Meet A'Shawn Robinson, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top DT Heading into Next Season

Meet Joey Bosa, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top DE Heading into Next Season

Meet Jaylon Smith, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top LB Heading into Next Season

Meet Vernon Hargreaves III, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top CB Heading into Next Season

Meet Jalen Ramsey, the 2016 NFL Draft's Top Safety Heading into Next Season

All statistics courtesy of Ohio State's official athletics website unless otherwise noted. All GIFs made at Gfycat using videos from Draft Breakdown and YouTube.

Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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