PFF Debate: Ezekiel Elliott a top-10 draft pick?

PFF analysts Mike Renner and Gordon McGuinness discuss the NFL potential of RB prospect Ezekiel Elliott.

| 7 months ago
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

PFF Debate: Ezekiel Elliott a top-10 draft pick?

2015 was the year of the running back in college football. While most of the elite backs were sophomores, Ohio State junior Ezekiel Elliott declared and immediately flew to the top of everyone’s draft boards.

In our first PFF Debate of the 2016 draft season, analysts Mike Renner and Gordon McGuinness will discuss, disagree and ultimately decide whether or not they believe Ezekiel Elliott has what it takes to be a top pick in the 2016 NFL draft.

Have something to add to the discussion? Sound off in the comments below, or tweet us @PFF.

Elliott’s skill set

Mike Renner: I’m not here to say that Ezekiel Elliott won’t be a successful NFL running back. I see the elite balance, natural receiving ability, and technically-sound pass protection. But those are just three traits out of many that are required for a running back.

In terms of elusiveness, vision and power, I just don’t see an elite player. His 54 broken tackles a year ago were only the 18th-most in the country, despite having the seventh-most carries (291) — all this behind the eighth-best run-blocking line in the FBS. Like Melvin Gordon a year ago, I don’t believe Elliott has that special ability to overcome a poor run-blocking line at the next level.

Gordon McGuinness: I’m not going to disagree with you and try to say that Elliott is going to be a top-five runner from the moment he walks into the NFL. While all the points you raised are true of 2015, one only has to look back to 2014 to see a much better runner. In 2014, Elliott lead all draft-eligible running backs in this class with a rushing grade of +30.8. He’s not the type of player who is necessarily going to juke a defender out of his cleats, but he is a powerful runner.

Zeke run

Like in 2015, in 2014 Elliott averaged 3.6 yards after contact per carry, which was good enough for the sixth-highest mark in this draft class. He’s unlikely to average that in the NFL, given that Le’Veon Bell lead the NFL in that category with an average of 3.4 yards after contact per carry, but rookie Todd Gurley averaged 2.9 after averaging 3.9 in his final year in college. I don’t think it’s too much of a leap of faith to think Elliott can average 2.5 or so in the NFL, which would have been good for 20th last year.

Renner: You’re making my points for me, Gordon. Saying Elliott was better in 2014 when Ohio State’s run-blocking was also better tells me that he’s predicated on his line to some degree — most running backs are. However, most running backs don’t have dominant run-blocking game-in and game-out — Elliott did.

Ohio State had the fourth-highest graded run-blocking in the Power-5 over the past two seasons. When Todd Gurley was tearing it up a year ago, it was behind only the 18th-best run-blocking unit. It’s easy to have good vision when you could drive a truck through some of the holes he had (no offense to Trent Richardson), but what happens when he gets to the NFL and those freeways become bike paths?

McGuinness: What makes Elliott special is that he is going to walk into the NFL as a three-down starter from Day 1. The comparison with Melvin Gordon as a runner is a fair one, but Elliott is a better all-around player. Gordon’s pass-blocking efficiency rating was 93.4 in his final year at Wisconsin, allowing six total pressures from 72 pass-blocking snaps, while Elliott in 2015 had a pass-blocking efficiency rating of 99.0, allowing just one total pressure from 102 pass blocking snaps, and 95.5 in 2014, with eight pressures allowed from 132 pass-blocking snaps.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Elliott walks into the NFL as a very good pass-blocker. Coupled with his ability as a receiver and his good — if not great — running ability, he’s a rarity as a prospect, and worthy of a top-10 pick in my opinion.

Is he a first-rounder?

Renner: What we haven’t mentioned yet, and what is the crux of my argument against Elliott in the first round, is the positional value of running backs.

You mentioned Le’Veon Bell, and it’s generally agreed upon that he’s a top-three running back in the league right now. But that Steelers’ offense took no noticeable step back from 2014 without him in the lineup (and actually averaged more in the games when Ben Roethlisberger was healthy).

Now take Jamaal Charles’ career in Kansas City. He’s missed 27 career games while appearing in 86 others. The difference in the Chiefs’ points-per-game without Charles is less than a single point. And these are backs that would be universally considered first-round picks in any re-draft.

With Elliott, it’s impossible to say yet if we’ll get one of those elite guys, and because of that, it seems particularly crazy to me to talk about him as a top-10 pick.

McGuinness: I know where you’re coming from, and with someone like Elliott, we have to get into the philosophical nature of the draft. We start talking about how teams can’t draft a running back in the top 10 because it’s not great value, just like a lot of people say that teams can’t draft Florida State CB Jalen Ramsey No. 1 overall because he’s a defensive back.

With the exception of fullbacks and, as much as it pains me to say, special teamers, if I think a player has the potential to be a special talent at his position, I’d gladly take them in the top 10.

Do you need to apply some positional value? Sure, it’s why I’d take Jalen Ramsey, Joey Bosa, DeForest Buckner, Myles Jack, Carson Wentz, Jared Goff, and possibly Laremy Tunsil ahead of Elliott, but once you reach the cut-off of those elite players, I’d jump at the chance to draft Elliott at pick eight, nine or 10.

It really comes down to whether or not you  believe Elliott is that special of a talent, and, based on what we’ve seen the past two seasons, I think we’re looking at a potential three-down superstar.

  • Samuel Myers

    Pittsburgh was better when Roethelisberger was healthy because QB is the most important position on the field and any team is worse off without a good one, not because Bell is not an incredibly valuable player. The difference in quality between Ben and Landry Jones/Mike Vick is far more substantial than the difference between DeAngelo Williams and Bell, particularly when Martavis Bryant, Antonio Brown, and Markus Wheaton are running routes and taking the vinegar out of the run defense. The idea that Bell doesn’t make a dramatic difference to Pittsburgh’s offense when healthy is ridiculous, particularly when the basis for this argument consists of sample where the most important player on the field was alternately injured or absent from the field. It’s just not a valid argument.

    Does Minnesota make the playoffs without Adrian Peterson? How much better was Aaron Rodgers with a lean, effective Eddie Lacy? How many Super Bowl appearances does Seattle have without Marshawn Lynch? How far into the playoffs does Denver get without running the ball more effectively than the opposition. How well did Atlanta do once Devonta Freeman lost his early-season edge? How good was Dallas without DeMarco Murray? Yes, the Chiefs were better without Jamaal Charles, but that had a lot to do with their defense which turned into a top-5 unit in the second-half of the year (their opponents scored significantly fewer points per game beginning about week 7 — Charles was hurt in week 5)

    The fact is, a great running back represents significant value, but like most other positions, that value is mitigated significantly by lack of production from the QB — then again, QBs are almost always more effective when they have a running back to rely on. Are running backs as important as they were in the 1990s? No, the game has changed. But more than devaluation, it’s simply harder to qualify as an elite running back now than it was 20 years ago. You have to be much more of a creator, and do more things really well, than backs did in the past. But would anyone really suggest that Barry Sanders or Terrell Davis wouldn’t be worthy of top-10 picks if they entered the league now, assuming teams knew what they’d get?

    Is there any data to suggest that a star running back is LESS valuable to a team’s success than a star lineman, a star safety, or a star receiver? No. How many great seasons have the Lions had, even with arguably the best receiver in the NFL for a decade? Truthfully, any player that consistently generates production and makes a team more dangerous by virtue of his presence is extremely valuable. Truly dynamic players are hard to find, and Elliot qualifies in spite of his position, as does a guy like Miles Jack (who plays a position widely seen as low on the totem pole of value).

    NFL teams clearly assess things this way too, as Todd Gurley was seen as so valuable and so close to can’t miss that he went in the top-10 coming off a torn ACL. Melvin Gordon was widely considered a lock in the first round by most pundits, and clearly, by the Chargers (who by the way have a very good QB but haven’t gone to the playoffs since Ryan Matthews’ excellent 2013 season). Next year there could be as many as 3 backs taken in the first round.

    I can agree that there are more quality running backs than there are quality pass rushers, quarterbacks, or corners — and therefore, running backs have less intrinsic value. Those are probably the three most important positions, owing both to their impact and their relative scarcity. But once you move beyond that, a great player is a great player. If you think you can draft a can’t-miss star at the running back position, and you need a running back or are in position to take BAP, you take the guy you are sure about without fretting about the direction of the game.

  • Mike J.

    I love the running game; I was depressed for weeks when Jim Brown retired. Having said that, HB’s do not win championships.

    • Samuel Myers

      Great teams win championships. There is no set formula. You need talent, coordination, leadership. The idea that because “HBs don’t win championships” you shouldn’t draft a great player at that position in the first round, particularly given the new rookie wage scale, is misguided. No one player wins championships. Do corners win championships? Do receivers? Maybe QBs do, but then there are only a couple of guys that would qualify as “do-it-all QBs” and even those guys need great players around them. Most guys, even great young players like Luck and Wilson, need a supporting cast. And the proof is quite obviously in the pudding.

  • Larsoze

    Did his Wonderlic score leak yet? God knows if that will play into how Elliott is viewed. I couldn’t find it on which seems to have all the latest scores for players, so maybe it hasn’t? Anyhow, my eye test always seemed to tell me that Ezekiel was a heckuva talent, but the Big 10 was so all over the board talent wise sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s just playing against the JV or if he was really that good.

  • Runner1967

    Bell and Lacy show you can get a great RB beyond the 1st round. TRich shows no matter how good a RB looks in college taking one in top ten isn’t wise.

  • Vysehrad

    Running backs are undervalued in this so called “passing league”. It’s one thing if you’ve got a future HOF QB, but if not, you’d better have balance. Seahawks lost a Super Bowl because they didn’t trust their running back enough. Also something to be said about controlling the clock. This guy may or may not be worth a top ten, but show me a player, any player who’s GUARANTEED to be worth a top ten. Anybody can bust for any number of reasons.

  • Marcus Walker

    You guys should revisit this discussion…