A flashy, crop-top wearing, explosive Ohio State running back was taken fourth overall by the Dallas Cowboys in the 2016 NFL Draft. The selection was considered a bit of a reach because of positional value, but Ezekiel Elliott exploded and led the league in rushing as a rookie. Elliott is being heralded as a top back in the league after just one season, but Jordan Howard is the most talented running back from the 2016 draft class.
Jordan Howard Is Better Than Ezekiel Elliott
The average football fan will look at Elliott’s numbers from his rookie campaign and instantly dub him the best back in his class and a top three runner in the NFL. People will look at his 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns as a rookie and see nothing but the numbers. He has already been called “the next Emmitt Smith” and an elite talent and people are comparing him to proven guys in the league like David Johnson and Le’Veon Bell.
The Ezekiel Elliott hype train has already gone way too far. He isn’t quite as elite as his numbers show. The young running back has the perfect situation around him and if you put even a halfway capable runner in his place, the numbers will be respectable. For one, Elliott ran behind the best offensive line in football last year. If a back has Zack Martin, Travis Frederick, Tyron Smith, Ronald Leary, and Doug Free opening lanes for him, chances are he’s going to look very good.
Aside from an elite offensive line, though, Elliott still had a lot of surrounding talent. Fellow rookie, quarterback Dak Prescott, had a very fine season under center. Teams couldn’t zone in on Ezekiel Elliott when they had to worry about Prescott airing it out to talents like Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, and Jason Witten. Prescott was able to complete 67.8% of his passes for 3,667 yards. What’s more impressive about the young quarterback’s season, however, is that he threw 23 touchdowns to just four interceptions. The young quarterback and running back duo undoubtedly benefit greatly from each other.
Is this all to say that the former Ohio State star isn’t good or even great? Not at all. The point is that an ideal situation inflated his numbers. Elliott had an incredible season by any standard, but he is not the best running back in the league right now. In fact, he is not even the best running back in his draft class. Enter Jordan Howard.
Ezekiel Elliott vs. Jordan Howard
First, let’s just look at the numbers. The Cowboys runner carried the ball 322 times for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns with a 5.1 yards-per-carry average. He also fumbled the ball five times, which was tied for the most fumbles in the league by a running back last season. Howard carried the ball 252 times for 1,313 yards (second highest total in the league) and six touchdowns. His yards-per-carry average was 5.2, which ranked third among all starting runners. Howard also fumbled the ball just twice. Those are very good numbers, especially considering the situation Howard was in. It was almost the exact opposite situation of Elliott’s.
For Howard, there was no surrounding offensive talent. He ran behind one of the league’s worst offensive lines and had one of the most unstable quarterback situations. It was a rotating, injury-driven carousel of Jay Cutler, Brian Hoyer, and Matt Barkley. That does not exactly sound like a group who can strike fear into opposing defenses. Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery was inactive for a chunk of the season and number two man Kevin White missed most of the season as well. The entire offense was dropping off around Howard, yet he persevered and never missed a game.
By the end of the season, Cameron Meredith and Eddie Royal were the primary pass catching threats. These receivers are a couple guys who are usually third, fourth, or even fifth options. Defenses were able to zone in on Jordan Howard with the lack of talent surrounding him. Despite the added pressure, the young back thrived and was second in the NFL in rushing. It takes a great talent to achieve that level of play in such a terrible situation.
Ezekiel Elliott had an ideal situation and all the surrounding talent he could possibly want. He still paced all running backs in fumbles and his yards-per-carry average was not as good as Howard’s. If Jordan Howard was able to play with the surrounding talent that Elliott had, his numbers would easily surpass those of the Dallas standout. Both running backs are great talents, but after dominating despite tremendous adversity this past season, Howard deserves to be considered the better running back.