Even if Ezekiel Elliott Is Great, He Was an Awful Selection for the Cowboys

The Cowboys selected Ezekiel Elliott with the fourth overall pick in last night's first round of the NFL Draft. But why?

Ezekiel Elliott could end up being one of the best running backs in the NFL, and Dallas would still have made the wrong choice in selecting him last night.

NFL front offices are still -- objectively -- getting it wrong. Rather than spending early-draft selections on truly impactful positions, they're doing what the Cowboys did last night. They're taking a running back. With the fourth overall pick.

Fans are excited, and I understand why: we live in a fantasy football world where 1,500 yards from scrimmage is everything at the running back position.

But from a real football standpoint, it was a bad pick. And it's made worse when you read the Cowboys' logic as to why they selected Elliott. Here's something head coach Jason Garrett said after the selection:

“Hopefully you possess the ball more. You get more plays on offense, fewer plays on defense, and that allows your defense to play at a higher level. It’s similar to how we played a couple years ago, when we ran the ball so effectively — and I thought it had a really positive impact on everybody on our team. We believe Zeke gives us a chance to do that.”

This is something that seems like it should be true, but there's absolutely nothing quantifying whether or not it's actually true.

The truth is, there's no correlation -- the r-value is 0.10 -- between rushing and defensive performance according to our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metric. It may seem intuitive that holding the ball would help a defense -- and it might to a small degree -- but there are plenty of instances where that's not the case.

I mean, if we want to play the anecdotal game like the Cowboys are doing (their sample size here is "one", after all), Adrian Peterson's teams haven't always had above-average defenses. Remember Le'Veon Bell's breakout season a couple of years ago? That Steeler defense was awful.

Here's the kicker, though: per NEP, the Cowboys had a better defense last season (19th when adjusted for strength of opponent) than they did in 2014. You know, last year, when they were Tony Romo-less and had Darren McFadden leading the backfield.

The DeMarco Murray Myth

To think DeMarco Murray was the reason for Dallas' efficiency in 2014 would be like thinking Robert Herjavec is the reason people tune into Shark Tank. Sure, Murray was part of it all, but when you remove him from the equation, things don't really change.

Take a look at how the Cowboys performed on the ground in 2014 (Murray's big year that relentlessly gets brought up by the Cowboys' front office -- why did they get rid of him again?) versus 2015:

Adjusted Rush NEP Rank Per Play Rank
2014 13.91 9th 0.03 9th
2015 8.51 9th 0.02 9th

This isn't some mistake. The Cowboys' rushing offense relative to the rest of the NFL was nearly identical in 2015 as it was in 2014.

Maybe this is making you second guess Net Expected Points, because there's no way Dallas ran the ball as effectively last year as they did when Murray had his big breakout campaign.

Well, even the most traditional statistic imaginable -- yards per carry -- shows the same thing. In 2014, Dallas' average yards per tote was 4.6. In 2015, it was...4.6.

The only reason people view the Cowboys' 2014 team as this run-heavy, can't-stop-them offense is because of volume. The Cowboys rushed for 466 more yards in 2014 than they did in 2015, and game script surely had a lot to do with that. But not because of the defense -- a defense that was better in 2015 than it was in 2014. It was because of Romo's injury and the fact that Dallas' passing game went from the second-most efficient in football (behind Green Bay) to the fourth-least efficient (behind every team except for Baltimore, Tennessee and St. Louis).

So much for that, Jason.

The Running Backs Still Matter Myth

No, the three-down running back isn't "back".

Earlier in the week, I broke down why first-round running back selections are dumb. One of the main reasons is pretty straightforward: we've yet to see, since the turn of the century, a season where running the ball has been more effective than passing it.

If you're more into the connection between the two phases of an offense and winning, take a look at the pair of graphs below that show wins versus schedule-adjusted passing and rushing efficiency over the last five years:

Passing NEP vs. Wins

Rushing NEP vs. Wins

It's obvious from the graphs, but winning has a much stronger correlation to passing (r-value of 0.66) than to rushing (0.30). In other words, if you're making a big investment on the offensive side of the ball, you should be trying to bolster your passing attack, not your rushing attack.

The 2014 and 2015 Dallas Cowboys are the perfect -- absolutely perfect -- example of this at work. The rushing offense was very similar in effectiveness, while the passing game fell dramatically. In 2014, Dallas went 12-4. In 2015, they went 4-12.


The Zeke Is Bad Myth

Yes, analytics and math back up the idea that Dallas' selection was borderline awful. But that doesn't mean I -- or numbers -- think Ezekiel Elliott will be a bad running back in the NFL.

You see, that's where this is all really unfortunate. The instance you make the statement that Dallas' pick was bad, folks come at you with the assumption that your evaluation is off.

The difference is that we're talking about positional valuation and individual player evaluation, which are two different things.

In fantasy football, for instance, selecting a quarterback early isn't a wise thing to do. That doesn't mean Aaron Rodgers is a bad passer. It's only because the position doesn't matter to the game.

This doesn't mean Ezekiel Elliott is bad. His position just doesn't matter to the game.

Look, without even digging this deep into why rushing isn't a big deal, you could easily make the case that Dallas made the wrong choice because they've invested heavily in their offensive line. If the line is good, why invest in a running back? Why not actually improve your defense with a player like Jalen Ramsey?

The math behind the pick just takes the horrible selection to a new level. A level that shows a lack of general awareness in the Cowboys' front office.

Ezekiel Elliott will be good. But it just doesn't matter.