Ezekiel Elliott Will Be a Good NFL Running Back, But Did He Get Drafted Too Soon?

For the second season in a row, Ezekiel Elliott was one of the most dominant and complete players in college football. Can he continue to find success in the NFL?

Trent Richardson. Todd Gurley. Melvin Gordon.

Ezekiel Elliott.

In an era where the running back position has been devalued, Elliott's collegiate success made him the newest first-round running back selection.

He's one of just four runners to be taken on the draft’s first day since 2012, joining the aforementioned players.

When considering the individual success of first-round talent at the running back position throughout the past five seasons, Gurley was the only player to have even moderate success.

Gordon struggled immensely behind the San Diego Chargers' injured and ineffective offensive line last season, and Trent Richardson was horrific in three seasons.

The table below shows the success (or lack thereof) of these three rushers throughout their careers, according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric, which you can read more about in our glossary.

Year Player Rushes Rushing NEP Rushing NEP per Rush League Average
2012 Trent Richardson 267 -17.80 -0.07 -0.03
2013 Trent Richardson 188 -27.14 -0.14 -0.02
2014 Trent Richardson 160 -13.95 -0.09 -0.03
2015 Melvin Gordon 184 -34.19 -0.19 -0.01
2015 Todd Gurley 229 7.98 0.03 -0.01

While Gurley looks to be a star, one can look at the Rams' offense and conclude -- as our own JJ Zachariason did this week -- that NFL teams need to stop drafting first-round running backs. Citing the league-wide shift to more pass-friendly offenses, JJ states that "passing has just become so efficient that running the football is now less important," and I couldn't agree more.

Yet, here I am, telling you that Zeke really might be worth a first-round pick.

Elliott is widely considered the best talent at the position in this draft class and possesses the most complete skill set among his fellow prospects. The "hero in the half-shirt" has no glaring weaknesses on tape and has been durable throughout his Ohio State career.

One trait that stands out is his blocking ability: per Pro Football Focus, he allowed just one sack on 108 pass-blocking snaps in 2015. His coach, Urban Meyer, called Elliott “the best player I’ve ever coached without the ball in his hand.”

A first-round running back should be a three-down player, therefore, the ability to stay on the field in obvious passing situations -- either as a pass-blocker or a pass-catcher -- is vital to a prospect's chance to succeed. While his skill in pass protection is notable, Zeke’s talent with the ball in his hand trumps his other attributes.

Production and Comparisons

Elliott was a two-year starter for the Buckeyes after backing up Carlos Hyde in 2013. Over his three-year career, Elliott carried the ball 592 times for 3,961 yards (6.7 yards per carry average).

Year Att Yds Avg TD Rec Yds Avg TD
2013 30 262 8.7 2 3 23 7.7 1
2014 273 1,878 6.9 18 28 220 7.9 0
2015 289 1,821 6.3 23 27 206 7.6 0
Career 592 3,961 6.7 43 58 449 7.7 1

In 2015, Zeke rushed 289 times for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns, which is impressive enough in its own right. But he also ran for over 1,000 of those yards after first contact. NFL defenders are faster and stronger than the ones he faced on Saturdays in the Big Ten, but his ability to break tackles and accelerate back to full speed quickly hints at future greatness.

In addition, Elliott caught 92.9% of passes thrown his way (per Pro Football Focus). Although he displays soft hands out of the backfield, he wasn’t called on to do a lot in the passing game at Ohio State.

After running an official 4.47 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, considers the 6’0”, 225-pound Elliott’s athleticism and measurables comparable to Matt Forte. While’s closest player comparison to Zeke is last year’s rookie standout Todd Gurley, scouts likened Elliott’s running style to Frank Gore and Edgerrin James

Chart courtesy of

Elliott in Dallas

DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing yards in 2014 but left Dallas for Philadelphia last season.

On the surface, the Cowboys' run game regressed greatly after his departure. In reality, Dallas had a positive rushing NEP in both years, with a 0.03 Adjusted Rushing NEP per play in 2014, followed by a 0.02 in 2015. One main reason the Cowboys struggled as a team last year was because of the injuries at the quarterback position. Despite Tony Romo's injuries, the running backs were still able to perform better than the league average.

Looking forward, the best running back in the draft class gets the privilege of standing behind the best offensive line in the league. While Elliott is talented enough to fit into any scheme, he profiles best into a zone-blocking scheme.

Now, he gets the chance to run behind a historic one.

While the Cowboys had other needs on the defensive side of the ball, they took an exciting playmaker with massive potential. Look for Elliott to become one of the better backs in the NFL immediately.