INDIANAPOLIS – Ezekiel Elliott’s NFL Combine experience is far behind him. He’s a year removed from the draft process and well-established as a Pro Bowl running back.
But as a star-studded running back class met the media at this year’s Combine, it was hardly surprising that all anyone wanted to talk about was Zeke. After all, his 1,631-yard season paved the way for the Cowboys to win the NFC East.
It also challenged the notion, widely accepted in recent years, that running backs are a dime a dozen in today’s NFL.
“It helped us completely,” said Leonard Fournette on Thursday. “It showed that he’s not just a running back. He can help in the passing game, he can run, he can block. He led a great way for these running backs that are coming out right now.”
A standout at LSU, Fournette is perhaps the biggest name among a loaded class of ball carriers this year, right alongside Florida State’s Dalvin Cook. Both backs have game-changing abilities, and they’re both going to carry lofty expectations – especially after Elliott’s breakout rookie campaign.
“It goes to show – if a running back gets put in the right system, gets put in the right place, he can do a great amount of things for a team,” Cook said. “I feel like if I get put in the right system, I can do the same things Zeke did.”
Of course, it’s to be expected that Cook would feel that way, as would Fournette. Both players have been highly-regarded since high school. They were Heisman Trophy contenders, and they were the focal points of their college offenses.
What will be interesting to watch is whether recent results translate to other teams’ draft strategies. Elliott took the league by storm en route to 1,994 total yards and 16 total touchdowns. The year before, Todd Gurley won NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year on the strength of an 1,106-yard season.
“We value running backs. The runner matters and that’s something we’ve believed in for a long time,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett on Wednesday. “A couple of years ago when DeMarco Murray was our running back, he had a huge impact on our football team. I was fortunate to play with Emmitt Smith for eight years. I know the impact he made in this organization. So great runners make a big difference.”
One need look no further than the Cowboys’ 2016 season for evidence of that. Dak Prescott certainly shined in the game’s most important position, winning his own Offensive Rookie of the Year award in the process. But when he won that honor back in February, he made sure to single out Elliott – whose relentless running style powered the Dallas offense all year.
“Obviously, I couldn’t have done it without him,” Prescott said. “The defense was honing in on him, making my job easier.”
Elliott is a voice of encouragement for his fellow ball carriers, as well. Back in October, when the Cowboys took their bye week, he visited with Fournette in Baton Rouge before LSU squared off against Ole Miss.
“When he came to our game when we played against Ole Miss, he told me to stay focused,” Fournette said. “He told me the sky is the limit and to stay focused.”
So again, that begs the question: can Elliott’s success spur a change in thinking about the value of a running back? For every Ezekiel Elliott, there’s a Jordan Howard – who was drafted in the fifth-round last spring and ran for 1,313 yards for a 3-13 Chicago team.
“I understand the arguments about shelf life and maybe you can find running backs later in the draft,” Garrett said. “But if you have an opportunity to get a great football player who’s a running back, he can have a big impact on your football team.”
Garrett has plenty of experience with that, both as a coach and a player, and Elliott’s success is going to ensure that he won’t have to worry about what happens to Cook or Fournette. It’s virtually unthinkable that either player could wind up a Cowboy.
Regardless of that, Elliott’s impact could play a big role in this year’s draft, and the running backs coming behind him are thankful for that fact.
“Zeke did a great job catching the ball out of the backfield, protecting Dak at quarterback and running very well behind a good offensive line,” Cook said. “He paved the way for us very good, and it’s a good thing for us.” Read