Ezekiel Elliott is best, most complete RB prospect since Adrian Peterson

Sam Monson takes a closer look at the convincing strengths of Ohio State's top prospect.

| 9 months ago
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Ezekiel Elliott is best, most complete RB prospect since Adrian Peterson


With the 2016 draft season underway, Sam Monson opens up his Analysis Notebook once again to share an in-depth evaluation of one top prospect each week. This week, we’ll explore the strengths, weaknesses and bottom-line scouting report for Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott. 

Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott is at the top of this year’s running back draft class. In 2014, he was second only to Melvin Gordon in our grades, and this past year he was the highest-graded runner eligible for the draft.

Everybody looks at what a running back does when carrying the football, but Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer recently said that Elliott was “the best player I’ve ever coached without the ball in his hand.”

There was much debate as to exactly what Meyer meant by that comment, but as an example, Elliott was the highest-graded blocking back in the nation last season, and only one other back was even in the same ballpark in grading terms.

Regardless of the high praise and grades, Elliott often divides opinion. Let’s take a closer look at where he excels, and where he potentially may fall short.

What he does well

We’ll start with the blocking. That’s not to say that this is his single best trait, or to diminish his skills as a runner, but it does separate him from the rest of this class in a way nobody else can match.

The majority of college backs are true scatbacks – backs with no responsibility in pass protection – but the NFL is not like that, and neither was the Ohio State offense. This past season Elliott was on the field for 820 snaps, and was pass blocking on 108 of them. In total he was blocking either in the run or pass game on 295 snaps, or four more than he actually carried the ball.

They didn’t do this because he was bad at it. In those 108 pass-blocking snaps Elliott gave up just one sack, and that sack was on the debatable side that could easily have been avoided had the quarterback gotten rid of the ball instead of holding it, turning bad into worse. That sack was the only bit of pressure he gave up across all 108 snaps.

The rest of those snaps looked more like this:

Zeke1

Elliott picks up the blitz, stones his man, and the quarterback never knows a thing about it. The single biggest transition for young backs coming into the NFL is suddenly having a role in this area of the game. Backs are often kept off the field in passing situations (kind of a big deal in today’s league …) because they can’t be trusted in pass protection to even identify the right guy, let alone pick him up and eliminate him from the play.

Elliott doesn’t have those problems, and they are asking him to do more than just find the free man coming right in front of him. His role at Ohio State often called for cross blocks where he would work all the way across the quarterback to pick up the extra pass rush, and it’s difficult to understate the advantage he has over the rest of the class in this area.

Elliott also run blocked extremely well. This is less of a big deal — most teams want their running back carrying the ball rather than blocking for somebody else. But given how well he performed when asked to block, it’s fun to dream of the damage he could do in Carolina lead-blocking the way for Cam Newton on designed QB-power plays.

Zeke 1 IMG

On this play Elliott even makes up for the left tackle blowing his block and still seals his man well enough for him to find the crease and make positive yards. Again, this isn’t a deal-breaker for teams who want their running back, you know, running, but in terms of reinforcing Meyer’s comments and daydreaming of his fit in Carolina blocking for Newton, this kind of play is like candy. At the very least it shows you that he is prepared to do the kind of dirty work that many runners just aren’t interested in, and more often than not the players prepared to do that make for good football players.

Now we get to his work running the ball, which in all honesty is what most people are going to care about. Elliott may not have the devastating athleticism and explosion of somebody like Todd Gurley – although he just got through with an incredibly impressive combine performance – but that isn’t to say he doesn’t have ability of his own.

What Elliott does well is gain yards after contact. He has the skills to pick his way through big holes as well as most players, but he excels at maximizing every run by dragging players for yardage and falling forwards. Last season he totaled over 1,000 rushing yards after first contact. He averaged 3.6 yards per carry after contact, had 13 runs of double-digit yards after contact to his name, and 48 carries in which he gained five or more rushing yards after contact. Can you see the theme?

The average Zeke run doesn’t end when he is first met by defenders, it ends a few yards further down field, often with a defender trampled underfoot after he has fought his way for additional yardage.

This is the kind of thing I’m talking about:

Zeke 2

This is a pretty good-sized hole through the line that Elliott reads well and exploits, but look at the yardage he gains after contact, just dragging defenders on a seemingly endless ride down field until eventually toppling.

Though it’s always nice to see RB prospects who are home-run hitters, on a down-to-down basis Elliott’s ability to grind an extra yard or two out of every play may be far more important. When you add that to his ability as a blocker both in the run and pass game you get a player who is more accomplished and polished than most running backs that have come into the league in the last decade or so.

Elliott is a throwback to an era when running backs were complete focal points of the offense rather than just interesting complementary pieces to a passing attack.

What he struggles with

Nothing.

Seriously. Elliott doesn’t have a weakness to his game. Even his single biggest weakness is that he’s less awesome than some of his peers or players that have come before him. He’s being downgraded for not being Todd Gurley or Leonard Fournette with the ball in his hands, and while that’s true, he’s a better blocker than either of them, and is certainly no slouch as a ball-carrier.

His athleticism was thought to be only average, but an impressive combine showing gave him a spider graph whose closest known match in MockDraftable’s database is … Todd Gurley.

2016-03-08_17-58-17

The bottom line

Elliott in essence gets criticized the same way Eddie Lacy did when he was coming out. Every now and then there will be a play where there is enough space that you want him to take it to the house, and he’ll come up short. However, on the other 150 carries either side of that play, he will gain more yardage than virtually any other running back you can find, and he’ll do it while locking down his man in pass protection and throwing the occasional useful block on scrambles.

Ezekiel Elliott may not be Todd Gurley, but he also may be the best and most complete running back prospect to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. And that will make him very tempting for teams in need of a running back drafting in the first round.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Johnny

    He will be a great player. If Dallas looked into Murray and has interest in Lamar, why not draft him at 4? Or atleast find a way to draft him. It would be cheaper and you’d have a great back for years to come. Just make it happen Dallas.

    • Jesus

      In my opinion, that wont happen. While the trend of first round RBs are trending again, it’s unlikely Dallas will pick him at 4, since teams don’t pick RB with such high value. Now a days you can practically get a RB off free agency. As for the Running Back situation, remain loyal to McFadden. He’s only 28 and he came off the best year of his career (debatable, but good year for him nevertheless). He’s proven at times when heathly, he can be the best Running Back in the NFL. If you have no faith in him, pick a RB with your second round pick (Derrick Henry). The freak of nature is perfect for your system of great O linemen making holes for the RB to cut into, and he’s good at it. Plus, he wants to play for you. He said so himself. Thatll do it. I’m Jesus Martinez, your sports guru logging out.

      • scott hunt

        I agree with u johnny. They should take Elliott. These naysayers gotta b lost . Chip kelly is n frisco. Stay loyal to mcfadden?! When healthy mcfaddens the best rb n the league?! Or another implying that elliott isn’t a physical runner?! Or he wants to play for the cowboys he said so himself.lmao are u serious jesus Martinez?sports guru? Every rb n america Wants to play bhind the dallas line. Dallas needs an every down back who can block and catch consistently who gets stronger during the game. Sorry mcfadden . How many games? How many rushing tds? Hes a skilled backup to Elliott.

      • Zach Barlow

        and dallas took him and is reaping the rewards

    • James W.

      They are more likely to take a back like Alabama’s Derrick Henry, Arkansas’ Alex Collins, or Utah’s Devontae Booker with their 2nd round pick. They are the kind of tough power runners that would thrive behind their line. With Lance Dunbar already established as their 3rd down guy, it would be a good one-two punch. That being said, I think Jerry Jones really likes Darren McFadden and won’t likely look to find him a running-mate until a little later in the draft. There’s not a lot of star power at RB in this draft, but there is decent depth.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Another Archie Griffin….lol.

    • scott hunt

      Your retarded, he’s no more archie griffen than henry is trent Richardson. Lol your sure are full of knowledge lmao

      • Steve

        No sir, *you’re* retarded.

        • scott hunt

          U gota be about 5 years old with that comment. No sir ur retarded? No facts , or even opinions to back up your dumb ass shit. Probally a snotty nosed kid. We will see dumb dumb .

          • Êl Jímbõ Físher

            He was implying YOU’RE retarded for calling someone else retarded while failing at basic grammar.

            And perhaps I’m wrong but I think the OP was being sarcastic with his Archie Griffin comment.

          • scott hunt

            EWell as far as my grammar i used abbreviated writing as i do n all my comments or posts. Plus my letter buttons are small, but none of that matters. And you were right he was being sarcastic, simply sayn Elliott’s career would mirror that of Griffen. And what i mean by that is Archie had back to back heisman years n college and followed that up pretty much with nothing n the pros. And that’s pretty much a wish from a hater who probably has no real knowledge of the sport anyway. Huge cowboy fan and my argument was that Elliott was not a mistake at all at pick 4 because the man blocks better than he runs, and for his size(6’0 225) he is not only elusive n small places, but he can go over, through, and around very well. And no need for a third down back. He does that too. So Dunbar go ahead and sign with the 49rs if the boys get Elliott or henry. Henry is just a bigger slower version of Elliott because of his size. Either one would be fine i think. Would rather have Elliott though because of his ability to run away from people and score from anywhere. To me , that is well worth the #4 pick. And would be cheaper than a DE and about the same as an elite safety/cb prospect. (Ramsey) And i think he brings much more to the table than Ramsey. How many turnovers did Ramsey get at FSU? That worries me. With the oline cowboys have Elliott would explode. Hell n college this year he had a 55,65, and an 85 yard td runs n the same game. So i think that translates into a great pro career. And not just basing it on that one game, he had many more long td runs after and b4 that. And 200 yards was a regular occurrence just like henry, but with less carries. Wow. That’s all i can say if he gets bhind that line n Dallas. Wow . Elliott, McFadden, and grab another rb n the 7th. Wouldn’t need to sign a veteran unless injuries force them to. Go de n rd 2. Will still be plenty more top college pass rushers. If braxton miller is available n rd. 3 get him. If not go cb n round. Cb position is deep as well or even safety. Just the best one of the two with ball skills and speed. Then there’s 2 4th round picks . Hate to beat a drum but another skilled buckeye would be ideal here. Cardel Jones. 12 gage baby. Lol. Preformed well at his pro day. Strongest arm n the draft. 2-3 years bhind romo to sharpen some skills and get some experience. He is probally the only rookie i wouldn’t worry about backing up romo. I thought he managed the last 3 playoff games just fine and at the same time as long as he has somebody who can run down his passes cowboys can go deep regularly. Second 4th round pick would go backup mlb/olb whichever one is better. And if not , look for that receiver who can return punts and kicks , but mostly for his return ability. Example would be a early Ted Ginn Jr. Type. But u can see , i plugged many holes with serious pro bowl prospects for many years. Rest of the draft would go defense except maybe a pick on the oline. Thats what i would do. This is what they will do. Don’t ask how i know. U might be surprised. Pick 4 they take bosa. If he’s not there they take Ramsey. If he’s not there , which he probably won’t be, i got San Diego taking him at pick 3 to replace weddle. The key is Cleveland, because i got them taking Carson Wentz qb at pick 2. But if they do take bosa at 2 then that would open the door for Elliott to go to dallas at pick 4. I pray that happens. I just got a text saying eagles are eying Elliott at pick 8. And that makes sense because they traded Murray. And are currently shopping Mathews. Getting rid of most or all of chip Kelly’s acquisitions. Got rid of two b4 the Murray trade to the dolphins to move up to pick 8. Bn down to sproles Elliott would be ideal. And if the boys do pass on Elliott and allow the eagles the opportunity to draft him, I’m telling u now u heard it here first. He will give the cowboys nightmares for years for passing on him. Just like moss only this time its to a rival(their biggest right now) , and face them twice a year. Yep philly is going after that 2014 offensive formula the cowboys had. Bradford and Daniel both are suited to the play action game. So if bosa goes at pick 4 to the boys, second round pick 34 they take miller wr Ohio st. If he’s gone they will take henry rb Alabama. Round 3 they will take cardel jones if they got henry or Elliott. If neither then they take running back here at 67. My guess would be a. Collins rb Arkansas and if he’s gone von bell safety ohio st. Rd 4 they take prosise rb notre dame if they don’t have collins. If they do then green a safety outa florida. Second 4th round pick they take scoobie wright lb arizona and if not him they take another de/dt mix. One who can play both. No picks n round 5. 6-7 is a toss up . I would imagine more defense and some backup oline. Thanks for reading my book. Peace

  • stinky

    Did you seriously just use a Mockdraftable graph to compare Ezekiel Elliott to Todd Gurley? I hope you realize that this is only comparing their height, weight, arm length and hand size, size their really isn’t any combine information for Gurley. We might as well compare my butcher to Gurley. He’s about the same size as well.

    • Êl Jímbõ Físher

      Lmao seriously what an epic fail

      • Zach Barlow

        zeke been so much better than gurley this year. I will sip tea though

    • Kevin J Chaffin

      That Adrian Peterson comment is also off the wall.

    • Rafael Rondon

    • Zach Barlow

      well look who is having the better year

  • Steve

    I’m flummoxed that this article does not mention his natural receiving ability. That is another huge facet to his game and should be included in his evaluation.

    • Kevin J Chaffin

      Fo sho

  • Kevin J Chaffin

    That Adrian Peterson comment it kills me Adrian Peterson is not a complete back all he’s known for is to pound the ball you want to talk about complete backs Matt Forte is the man. And again Adrian Peterson is not a complete back all I’ve ever seen him do is run the ball that’s it Matt Forte is a complete back. And I’m a die-hard buckeye fan and Bears fan and I’ll tell you this Ezekiel Elliott is not as good as Forte yet!

  • Kevin J Chaffin

    To me Adrian Peterson is a bum you might as well call him a scat back.

  • Kevin J Chaffin

    If it wasn’t for Beanie Wells getting turf toe real bad while he was still with the Buckeyes I feel he would be better than Adrian Peterson right now! After that turf toe he was never the same.

  • Kevin J Chaffin

    I just pray Elliott don’t hit bottom when he enters the NFL like most Alabama players I hope he lights the NFL on fire and put value back in the running back position!

  • Phillip Loyd

    Questioning his Athleticism? He was Gatorade Track Athlete of the year and won 4 state championships in his senior year. Cmon now.