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.
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.