After a lights-out rookie year, Ezekiel Elliott has managed to convince his peers he is the best running back in the NFL.
“No. 1? I’m gonna say it’s Ezekiel Elliott,” 49ers fullback Kyle Jucszyk said. “And I joke about it in our room, but it kinda wasn’t a joke. I said that’s the best football player I’ve seen in my life.”
To say his breakout rookie year matched his pre-draft hype is an understatement – Elliott far surpassed that. Now, it appears he’ll be a headache to opposing defenses for the foreseeable future. Although Elliott posted absurd numbers in 2016, he still feels he “left a lot of yards out on the field” – which is a scary thought to ponder.
Even when you compare his numbers to a stud running back like Le’Veon Bell (who ranked No. 9), it’s hard to make a case for why Elliott isn’t the best back in the game today.
Last year, Elliott chalked up 363 more yards rushing than Bell – and scored eight more times on the ground. He also beats out Bell in yards from scrimmage, racking up 1,994 yards to Bell’s 1,884. Many folks will argue Bell’s production was hurt because he missed three games due to a suspension for missing a mandatory drug screening – but that shouldn’t serve as a knock to Elliott.
If anything, it weakens Bell’s case because he broke the rules.
Under the assumption Bell played all 16 games in 2016, Elliott’s numbers are still projected to be superior. Bell averaged 105.7 yards rushing per game last season – and this theoretically means he would’ve had 422.8 additional yards, making his regular season total increase to 1,691. Granted, that number surpasses Elliott, but let’s not forget he sat out in Week 17 because the Cowboys were resting their star players for the postseason.
Zeke averaged 108.7 yards a game in 2016, so his projected regular season total would bump up to 1,740 – meaning he would’ve had 49 more yards than Bell.
When these two faced off head-to-head in Week 9, Elliott collected 209 total yards from scrimmage and scored three times – one of those being the game-winner. Bell only collected 135 total yards, and 57 of those were rushing yards. Elliott, on the other hand, rushed for 114.
And there’s also another factor that should play in Elliott’s favor – the weaponry that surrounds him. From All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant, to legendary tight end Jason Witten, to Cole Beasley coming off a career year, Dallas has to many weapons to account for, which means the attention can’t be solely put on Zeke, or opposing teams will pay heavily.
But the Cowboys also have the 2016 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Dak Prescott, as their quarterback along with arguably the best offensive line in the league.
This isn’t to say Pittsburgh doesn’t have weapons on offense. All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger provide tremendous talent to keep opposing defenses from zeroing in on Bell, but he’s been M.I.A. at minicamp and won’t sign his franchise tender, and that’s not exactly helping his team move forward.
The only other running back who remotely has a case to be viewed as the best in the NFL is David Johnson (who ranked No. 12). However, the numbers show Johnson is a better receiver than Elliott is, not running back.
Elliott not only rushed for almost 400 more yards in 2016, he also managed to average 30 more rushing yards per game. Some will argue he is a product of Dallas’ terrifying offensive line, but Zeke was no slouch in the second level, picking up 938 yards after contact.
“Every time he makes contact, he creates contact,” Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said. “So, he’s gonna lower that shoulder, he’s going to run behind his pads. … He’s going to run through you if you’re in his way.”
Meanwhile, Bell mustered up 786 yards after being touched, while Johnson’s yards after contact aren’t worth bringing to the discussion.
With a year of experience under his belt, it’s frightening to think of what Zeke will do in 2017. Get your popcorn ready.