The NFL draft is now over and one of the first-round selections that drew attention was the Dallas Cowboys’ selection of Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott with the No. 4 overall pick. ESPN’s Ed Werder, one of the best NFL reporters out there, reported via Twitter that the Cowboys had Elliott and Florida State cornerback Jalen Ramsey rated evenly, but chose Elliott because “they can give Elliott 25 touches. Teams can throw away from Ramsey.” The SportsChasers crew found this a topic worthy of debate. If you’re an NFL team with a high first-round pick, need both a running back and cornerback and there are players at both positions on the board whom you like evenly, what do you do? First, the case for the corner:
By MIKE HERNDON
There’s a reason first-round running backs have become nearly as rare as Halley’s comet sightings.
Actually, there are several reasons.
First, their typical shelf life in the NFL is three years, lower than any other position. Most of them are well over the hill by the time they hit 30. Secondly, most teams use more than one, meaning the need for a do-everything bell-cow back isn’t as great as it was when Minnesota traded five players and a boatload of draft picks in order to get Herschel Walker, or when Mike Ditka and the New Orleans Saints traded an entire draft from Ricky Williams.
Neither of those deals worked out too well, you’ll recall.
Finally, there is the track record of recent first-round running backs. Since the drafting of Adrian Peterson in 2007 — the mother lode against which all other first-round running back selections are judged — until this year, there have been 15 running backs chosen in the first round. Only two of those backs turned out consistent superstar-level performance: Chris Johnson, who became one of the better backs in the league with the Tennessee Titans, and Todd Gurley, who has played less than one full season since going No. 10 overall last April.
Most of the 15, including Doug Martin, Mark Ingram, Jonathan Stewart and Darren McFadden, have had up-and-down careers, with one or two elite seasons and several mediocre years. Six were busts of varying degrees, though that may be a bit premature for Melvin Gordon, who has played only one forgettable season in San Diego thus far.
Contrast that with the scores of very productive running backs who have come into the league as undrafted free agents, a list that includes Arian Foster, Priest Holmes, Fred Jackson, Willie Parker, Pierre Thomas and, more up to the minute, Thomas Rawls, who is expected to be Seattle’s starter this fall after the retirement of Marshawn Lynch.
Now comes the Dallas Cowboys, who made Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott the only running back selected in the first round of the 2016 draft with the No. 4 overall selection.
The pick made sense in that Dallas needs a running back — while McFadden rushed for just over 1,000 yards in 2015, he’s past his prime and extremely injury prone — and in that Elliott could be a once-in-a-generation talent. Although the Cowboys added former Washington leading rusher Alfred Morris via free agency, the chance to add a dynamic back like Elliott, who averaged over 6 yards per carry and rushed for over 1,800 yards in each of the last two season, was too tempting to pass up for the Cowboys, who have one of the league’s best offensive lines.
No one will call that a bad pick. But would Jalen Ramsey, the best defensive back in the draft and a player whom the Cowboys have said they graded equally to Elliott overall, have been an even better choice?
The Cowboys made the case that a running back can touch the ball 25 or 30 times a game where a cornerback, if he’s a good one, may not get to touch the ball at all — as teams will throw away from him. But isn’t that why lockdown corners are so valuable? That they can take away not only a team’s best receiver, but half the field away from an opposing offense’s passing game? Can you put a value on that?
And let’s, for the sake of argument, look at what the Cowboys could have done in the second round, had they chosen Ramsey instead of Elliott. They could have used their second-round pick, the No. 34 overall selection, on Alabama Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, who went to Tennessee with the No. 43 overall pick. Instead, they chose Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith, who is recovering from a torn ACL and LCL and won’t likely see the field until at least 2017. While the talented Smith could be a second-round steal should he recover fully, it’s still a risky pick.
If Elliott is indeed the next Peterson, as many have predicted, the Cowboys made the right choice. But he could also be the next Trent Richardson, a player once also thought to be a can’t-miss NFL star who was drafted No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2012. Richardson is now on his fourth NFL team and is struggling to stay in the league.
The greatest likelihood is that Elliott will end up somewhere between those two extremes. If so, and if Henry turns out to be a solid back, as well — not a bad bet if he can pry away enough carries from Demarco Murray — the Cowboys may later ask themselves if they’d been better off addressing their defensive needs in the first round.