In 2016, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott struggled in his debut against the New York Giants at Cowboys Stadium. He followed that poor performance with another sub-par showing against the Washington Redskins a week later. The runner ascended from there, finishing with the second-highest rookie rushing total in NFL history. Given the number of star-studded running back prospects featured in this month’s draft, the next Ezekiel Elliott could be on his way into the league.
The Next Ezekiel Elliott Could Be On His Way
Here’s a look at the top runners who could have the same kind of impact Elliott had for the Cowboys in his rookie season and their styles.
Draft Experts have said that LSU’s Leonard Fournette is the top-rated runner. Fournette was declared the next Adrian Peterson entering LSU. He was able to showcase his amazing talent in the Southeastern Conference over three seasons, rushing for 3,830 yards with 40 touchdowns.
His incredible power and blazing speed have been on display against some of the nation’s top defensive players. However, he suffered several nagging injuries during his time on campus. His durability will surely come into question as teams consider selecting him.
Despite Joe Mixon’s off the field struggles, the young runner has done nothing to diminish his ability to make a difference as a pure tailback. Teams may be reluctant to take the running back early in this year’s draft, but his talent is unquestionable. Due to his altercations, Mixon was only a part of two full seasons at the University of Oklahoma.
During his tenure, the player showed a tremendous amount of burst while splitting time with Samaje Perine. Mixon rushed for 2,027 yards and collected 17 touchdowns on just 300 carries. The team that drafts him or signs him as a free agent will be getting a relatively fresh runner with star potential. Mixon’s balance and durability separate him from the pack as this class’s top pure tailback.
Christian McCaffrey’s pedigree alone is worth taking a flyer on. He is the son of former Denver Broncos wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who was a very productive player throughout his career. McCaffrey is genetically gifted and has the work ethic to make the most of his ability. Although McCaffrey was primarily used as a tailback at Stanford, his versatility will allow the team that selects him to use him a number of ways.
At 6’0” 200 pounds, he has the size and speed to line up in the backfield, along the line of scrimmage as a pass-catcher and as a return specialist. Many teams are concerned that he will not be able to withstand the constant pounding that NFL runners have to endure. After finishing second in the 2015 Heisman trophy voting as a sophomore, McCaffrey returned for his junior season but was considerably less productive in the eyes of a few experts.
Running back Dalvin Cook appears to be the classic “factor” back heading into the 2017 NFL Draft. Cook ran for 4,464 yards and 46 touchdowns in his career at Florida State. Running a 4.49 40-yard dash at the combine, he has the shiftiness to boot. He’s not known for his power, but his 6’0” 209-pound frame will allow him to get plenty of yards after contact.
Once he gets into the open field, it will be hard for defenders to catch him from behind. Cook has scored on long runs of 94 and 75 yards in college; expect him to have a few more of those at the next level. Cook’s durability is also a positive, accumulating nearly 700 carries in three college seasons. Many experts believe that Cook has the makings of a Marshall Faulk-type ball-carrier.
None of the aforementioned running backs have garnered more accolades during their collegiate career than San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey. Pumphrey finished as the all-time leading rusher in NCAA Division I FBS history, gaining 6,290 yards in four seasons. The runner also produced 61 touchdowns with a long of 93 yards. His agility and decisiveness as a ball-carrier make NFL scouts’ mouths water.
Conversely, he is tremendously deficient in size. Listed at 5’8” 180 pounds, Pumphrey lacks the bulk needed for a running back to produce at a high level in the NFL. Historically, these undersized backs have been used in spot-duty like Darren Sproles or Reggie Bush have been utilized in their careers. They’re typically not asked to carry a heavy load, but Pumphrey could prove to be the exception to the rule.
When the smoke clears from this year’s draft, these are the top backs who will be left standing. Any team who makes the decision to give either of these players a chance could be on the receiving end of an incredible blessing. The premium on running backs in the NFL has gone down over the years, as teams have transitioned to a “running back by committee” philosophy. The emergence of Elliott seems to be altering that mindset, and these runners could continue that trend.