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:
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.
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:
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
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.
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.