Can Ohio State Buckeye RB Ezekiel Elliott Crack Top Ten of 2016 NFL Draft?

By Chris Malumphy

Ohio State Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott is likely to be a top ten selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. Nowadays, that is something that is unique, with only five running backs cracking the top ten during the past decade. Running backs are clearly undervalued in the current NFL, victims of a pass-happy league with a high preference for a running back by committee approach that still sends their best runners into the line hundreds of times a year causing them to take hits from increasingly well armored kamikaze defensemen that wear them down earlier than players at other positions resulting in shortened careers. It doesn't help their cause that elite running backs also command big bucks, or at least they used to, yet with taking so many hits, they can go down at any time. Nevertheless, it was not really all that long ago that running backs were considered to be the most important players in the draft, outside the truly elite quarterbacks. And even today, the worst lead running backs for any team will still touch the ball more often than any player other than the center and the quarterback. Running backs, as victims of circumstance, no longer get the recognition they deserve. Yet a good running back can cement victories and carry an offense with a mediocre quarterback.

Ezekiel Elliott may be just that type of player. He is said to have ALL the tools. He's big, explosive, has good hands, can block and won't be 21 until July. With the common knowledge that the top two picks in the draft by the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles will be quarterbacks Jared Goff and Carson Wentz in an as of yet undetermined order, there are eight teams in the top ten with whom Elliott could land: Chargers, Cowboys, Jaguars, Ravens, 49ers, Browns, Buccaneers and Giants. Elliott would improve the running games of everyone of those teams with the exception of the Buccaneers with Doug Martin. He would undoubtedly help the Chargers, but they have so many needs and spent a first round choice on Melvin Gordon last year. The Cowboys got a good year in 2015 out of Darren McFadden, who will turn 29 before the season begins, and signed Alfred Morris, who missed gaining 1,000 yards for the first time in his four-year career last season. Although Elliott would likely be an improvement long-term, the Cowboys also have other needs, including the increasing necessity to plan for the replacement of an aging, injury-prone Tony Romo. The Jaguars signed Chris Ivory from the Jets and received a productive rookie season from T.J. Yeldon, so they might be better off improving their woeful defense, but the addition of Elliott could help make the Jaguars the most explosive offense in the league. The Ravens need a running back and Elliott would be an ideal complement to, and take some of the pressure off, quarterback Joe Flacco. The 49ers need to improve one of the worst offenses in pro football any way they can and Elliott would be a solid addition, but San Francisco already has former Buckeye running back Carlos Hyde, although he has yet to put it all together. Elliott would be a tremendous addition to the Browns, but they may want to trade out of the position. The Buccaneers already have Doug Martin who has one of the most productive backs in recent years. Elliott would also fit the New York Giants very well in the tenth slot of the draft.

In 2015, 22 running backs were taken in the NFL Draft, including first rounders Todd Gurley (10th pick) by the Rams and Melvin Gordon (15th pick) by the Chargers. Gurley, who missed the opening of the season while recovering from injury, was the only one of the 22 to gain 1,000 yards rushing with 229 carries for 1,106 yards, a 4.8 yard average and 10 touchdowns. The Jaguars second rounder T.J. Yeldon out-gained the Chargers first rounder Melvin Gordon on the ground 740 to 641 on a similar number of carries. The only other running backs drafted in 2015 to gain even 500 yards were Ameer Abdullah (2nd round, Lions, 597 yards), David Johnson (3rd, Cardinals, 581), Jeremy Langford (4th, Bears, 537), Karlos Williams (5th, Bills, 517 with a 5.6 yard average and 7 touchdowns) and Javorius Allen (4th, Ravens, 514). It should be noted that you need to gain 640 yards to average just 40 yards per game.

Only three of the running backs drafted in 2015 gained 1,000 total yards rushing and receiving: Todd Gurley, 1,294; David Johnson, 1,038; and Ameer Abdullah, 1,019. The Browns Duke Johnson Jr. came close with 913. He had 61 catches and was the only running back drafted in 2015 with more than two yards rushing who gained more yards receiving (534) than on the ground (379). Nevertheless, the Redskins Matt Jones, Cardinals David Johnson and Bears Jeremy Langford each averaged significantly more yards per reception than Duke Johnson Jr.

Further below are the rookie year statistics for each of the 23 running backs drafted in the first round over the past decade sorted by total yards from scrimmage. The Buccaneers Doug Martin burst onto the scene in 2012 with the best rookie season of all (1,454 yards rushing, 472 receiving, 1,926 overall), topping even the Vikings Adrian Peterson (1,341, 268, 1,609). Of the 23, six topped 1,000 yards rushing in their rookie seasons: Doug Martin, 1,454; Adrian Peterson, 1,341; Chris Johnson, 1,228; Marshawn Lynch, 1,115; Todd Gurley, 1106; and Joseph Addai, 1,081. Ten had 1,000 plus yards rushing and receiving: Doug Martin, 1,926; Adrian Peterson, 1,609; Chris Johnson, 1,488; Joseph Addai, 1,406; Trent Richardson, 1,317; Reggie Bush, 1,307; Marshawn Lynch, 1,299; Todd Gurley, 1,294; Knowshon Moreno, 1,160; and Jahvid Best, 1,042.

Unsurprisingly, Reggie Bush provided the most production receiving as a rookie of any running back drafted in the first round for the past decade with 88 catches for 742 yards. Bush's career has always been limited, however, by his size and durability, although he did amass some significant yardage on the ground from 2011 through 2013 (1,086, 986 and 1,006 yard respectively) in his sixth, seventh and eighth seasons when the Dolphins and Lions fed him 200 plus carries each year.

You can see why so many teams (Browns, Colts, Raiders, Ravens) keep offering former Alabama star Trent Richardson a chance. During his rookie season with the Browns in 2012, Richardson had the 5th most total yards from scrimmage of the 23 running backs taken in the first round since 2006--and that despite playing much of the year with cracked ribs. Of the 23, only Doug Martin and Marshawn Lynch had more carries as a rookie than Richardson. It is probably just dreaming, but Richardson still has hope to turn his career around if he can get in shape and remain healthy since he won't turn 26 until July.

It seems unlikely that Ezekiel Elliot will fall out of the top ten in the 2016 NFL Draft. His goal should be to equal or surpass the production of the top rookie running backs of the past decade like Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Doug Martin.

Running Backs Drafted in 2015
Todd GurleyRams11010GeorgiaRams22911064.810211889.001294
Melvin GordonChargers11515WisconsinChargers1846413.50331925.80833
T.J. YeldonJaguars2436AlabamaJaguars1827404.12362797.811019
Ameer AbdullahLions22254NebraskaLions1435974.22251837.31780
Tevin ColemanFalcons3973IndianaFalcons873924.512147.00406
Duke Johnson Jr.Browns31377Miami (FL)Browns1043793.60615348.82913
David JohnsonCardinals32286Northern IowaCardinals1255814.683645712.741038
Matt JonesRedskins33195FloridaRedskins1444903.431930416.01794
Jeremy LangfordBears47106Michigan StateBears1485373.662227912.71816
Jalston FowlerTitans49108AlabamaTitans7131.915448.8157
Javorius AllenRavens426125USCRavens1375143.81453537.82867
Mike Davis49ers427126South Carolina49ers35581.707385.4096
David CobbTitans52138MinnesotaTitans521462.811-2-2.00144
Jay AjayiDolphins513149Boise StateDolphins491873.8179012.90277
Karlos WilliamsBills519155Florida StateBills935175.6711968.72613
Michael BurtonLions532168RutgersLions420.506396.5141
Cameron Artis-PaynePanthers538174AuburnPanthers451834.1155811.60241
Josh RobinsonColts629205Mississippi StateColts17392.306335.5072
Aaron RipkowskiPackers630206OklahomaPackers         11818.0018
Marcus MurphySaints713230MissouriSaints100.00         0
Joey IosefaBuccaneers714231HawaiiPatriots15513.40         51
Kenny HilliardTexans718235Louisiana State                    

Rookie Running Backs Drafted In 1st Round
(2006 - 2015)
Doug Martin2012Buccaneers13131Boise State31914544.611494729.611926
Adrian Peterson2007Vikings177Oklahoma23813415.6121926814.111609
Chris Johnson2008Titans12424East Carolina25112284.9943260611488
Joseph Addai2006Colts13030Louisiana State22610814.87403258.111406
Trent Richardson2012Browns133Alabama2679503.611513677.211317
Reggie Bush2006Saints122USC1555653.66887428.421307
Marshawn Lynch2007Bills11212California2801115471818410.201299
Todd Gurley2015Rams11010Georgia22911064.81021188901294
Knowshon Moreno2009Broncos11212Georgia2479473.87282137.621160
Jahvid Best2010Lions13030California1715553.24584878.421042
Laurence Maroney2006Patriots12121Minnesota1757454.36221948.81939
Beanie Wells2009Cardinals13131Ohio State1767934.571214311.90936
Jonathan Stewart2008Panthers11313Oregon1848364.5108475.90883
Melvin Gordon2015Chargers11515Wisconsin1846413.50331925.80833
Ryan Mathews2010Chargers11212Fresno State1586784.37221456.60823
DeAngelo Williams2006Panthers12727Memphis1215014.11333139.51814
Darren McFadden2008Raiders144Arkansas1134994.44292859.80784
Mark Ingram2011Saints12828Alabama1224743.9511464.20520
Donald Brown2009Colts12727Connecticut782813.631116915.40450
C.J. Spiller2010Bills199Clemson742833.80241576.51440
David Wilson2012Giants13232Virginia Tech71358544348.51392
Felix Jones2008Cowboys12222Arkansas302668.9321050276
Rashard Mendenhall2008Steelers12323Illinois19583.102178.5075