Will Ezekiel Elliott’s Success Change the View on Drafting Running Backs Early?
The NFL is no longer a league built on defense and running the football. Both elements of the game are important but the league is now driven by quarterbacks — evident by 13 quarterbacks making more than $20 million per season. As well as quarterbacks being drafted first and second overall in three of the last five drafts.
After the 2012 NFL Draft, no running back was selected in the first round the next two drafts. 2013 was the first time in NFL history that a running back was not drafted in the first round.
This was partially because of a lack of talent entering the draft and production from players drafted in later rounds. Tevin Colman, David Johnson, Jay Ajayi, Devonta Freeman, Thomas Rawls, Latavius Murray and Lamar Miller were drafted during or after the third round in the last five drafts.
When the Dallas Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott fourth in the 2016 draft, some questioned the move. But the tremendous success Elliott had in his rookie season may drive teams to follow the Cowboys. This draft features two running backs thought to be first round picks, Leonard Fournette and Dalvin Cook.
The Cowboys and Elliott had so much success due to the team’s construction. With the best offensive line in the NFL, Elliott’s talents were amplified. Elliott led the league in rushing yards while carrying the ball more than any other running back.
If these prospects want to replicate Elliott’s success, they need a team looking to run the ball. Fournette and Cook are the top prospects in the draft and will be selected within the top 20 picks. Both could have similar success to Elliott with the right landing spots but offer different skill sets.
Fournette is the more imposing of the two running backs. Measuring 6’0″ and 240 pounds, Fournette is a nightmare to tackle in the open field. Coupled with a 4.51 40-yard dash time, the LSU product looks the part of an NFL back. Fournette dealt with injuries at LSU, including an ankle injury that kept him out of their bowl game. Fournette can catch out of the backfield but would pair well with a third down specialist like Darren Sproles. A team with a strong offensive line would be the optimal landing spot for Fournette.
Cook is a true all-around running back. He can make plays between the tackles, catch out of the backfield and has game-breaking speed. Questions about Cook center around his size. Measuring in at the Combine at 5’10” and weighing 210 pounds, Cook lacks NFL size. The top five running backs last season all measure at least 6’0″ and 220 pounds. His ability to catch the ball out of the backfield distinguishes him from Fournette. Cook caught at least 20 passes in each of his three seasons at Florida State. Cook possesses three down potential and could fit into a shotgun-based offense.
Both of these running backs possess the ability to excel in the NFL. With highlight tapes that look like a Madden video game, both are game changers. Each has a different build and skill set but both are certain first round talents. Fournette projects to the NFL game easier and should be the first running back off the board on April 27. Cook won’t be waiting long though as the days of running backs being undervalued may be in the past.