Draft Daily Wake-Up Call: Ezekiel Elliott

Is the Ohio State running back good enough to justify the No. 8 overall pick?

Ezekiel Elliott. (USA Today Sports)

Ezekiel Elliott. (USA Today Sports)

Between now and the draft, we’ll zero in on one prospect a day with an Eagles slant. We’ve already covered Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Vernon Hargreaves and Paxton Lynch. If you have a player you want covered, shoot us an email ([email protected]).

THE BACK STORY

The question is not if, but when.

Only two running backs have been drafted in the first round in the last three years, but Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott will almost certainly join that increasingly exclusive group. While we can be confident one team will select Elliott on Day 1, what we don’t know is whether the Eagles want to use the eighth pick on him.

Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles is not a bad duo to have for 2016, but between the former’s injury history and the latter entering the final year of his contract at age 32, the team needs to find a quality young running back. Kenjon Barner is under contract for one more season, but it’s unclear how the new coaching staff feels about the 26-year-old who averaged 4.4 yards per carry — and fumbled once — in limited snaps a year ago.

Todd Gurley could help Elliott’s case. The 2015 Offensive Rookie of the Year averaged nearly five yards per carry and ran for 10 touchdowns, ranking fourth in Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric.

“I think the guys last year that were first-round picks like Todd Gurley, they set a standard for the younger generation coming up,” Elliott said at the NFL Combine. “I feel we’re going to bring it back.”

However, Melvin Gordon, drafted five picks after Gurley, didn’t come close to having the same immediate success, averaging 3.5 yards per carry — while scoring zero touchdowns and fumbling five times — on about twice as many carries as the next closest Charger.

Elliott seems much more likely to have the impact Gurley did compared to Gordon, but the question remains whether he’s good enough to justify a top-10 pick. Elliott has been an elite running back since high school, and he “will unquestionably be remembered as one of the all-time best backs in Ohio State history.”

His 6.7 career yards per carry is the best in Buckeye history, and his 3,961 rushing yards ranks second in school history. He also helped Ohio State win the national championship two years ago.

Elliott told reporters in Indianapolis that he grew up idolizing Marshall Faulk, but in order to justify a top-10 pick on a running back, he’ll have to come close to reaching that level.

THE MEASURABLES

Of all the running backs in Mock Draftable’s database, the guy Elliott is most similar to — in terms of measurables — is Gurley.

Although Elliott isn’t a burner, his 40-yard-dash time at the NFL Combine was tied for fifth among the running backs.

THE NO-22

Blocking is something you’ll hear a lot about with Elliott, and rightfully so. While it ranks relatively low on the scale of what you look for from your running back, it’s an impressive attribute of his, and it’s one that reflects his mentality as a runner.

He explained in Indianapolis why he’s so good at it.

“When I first started playing football I was a fullback. My first job was to block,” he said. “When I first got to Ohio State, I realized I wasn’t going to be the biggest or fastest guy. I was only 17 playing with a bunch of 22- and 21-year old guys, so I was trying to find something that would set me apart. And that day I realized it was just effort.

“Not everyone is willing to go out there and play with a lot of effort. And blocking is another thing that running backs aren’t really willing to do. That’s a part of my game. I really made it important to me to become very good at.”

My two favorite blocking plays of his are in the run game (both clips with Elliott highlighted are via ESPN), but he also allowed just one sack in 108 snaps of pass blocking last season, per Pro Football Focus.

He is also a reliable receiving option out of the backfield, which he attributes to former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte, who coached him at John Burroughs School in St. Louis.

“He was a great coach for me in high school. High school is kind of where I developed my pass-catching skills,” Elliott said. “He was a brilliant mastermind as an offensive coordinator/head coach. He used me in a lot of ways to get me in open space to get the ball. In high school is where I developed my receiving skills. He used me a lot in the slot. He used me a lot at wide receiver.”

Here’s his 19-yard reception against Western Michigan this year (h/t ESPN).

And, of course, he’s not too shabby running the ball. Elliott’s five 200-yard games and 22 100-yard games tie for first and second in Ohio State history, and he’s the only Buckeye with three rushes of at least 80 yards.

One of his best touchdown runs was his 65-yard scamper against Indiana, which Todd McShay broke down.

“First of all, the vision as a runner, following his block, and then also getting his eyes to the second level — the linebacker over-extends — and he’s exploding through the hole,” McShay said. “Then the top-end speed to run away from defensive backs in the open field, which he confirmed with that 4.47 40 at the combine.”

Elliott seems to have it all: vision, patience, ball security. According to ESPN, Elliott fumbled just four times on 650 offensive touches in three seasons at Ohio State. He’s also a physical back, which he touched on in Indianapolis.

“I like to get in between tackles and pound the ball,” he said.

Here’s his 15-yard run against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl that set up a touchdown.

And here’s his 10-yard touchdown run against Penn State.

Ironically, Elliott’s biggest weakness may come with the fact that he’s physical, likes to finish runs and takes a lot of hits. Here’s an excerpt from NFL.com’s “weaknesses” section for the running back:

Defenders land big shots on him. Appears to be too willing to put himself through the meat grinder rather than avoiding certain collisions. Understanding when to attack and when to elude may take time for him.

Some people also questioned Elliott’s maturity after he criticized Ohio State’s play-calling in a loss to Wisconsin, which the running back addressed at the NFL Combine.

“I told [NFL teams] I’ve grown up a lot since then. That was a great learning moment for me,” Elliott said. “I was emotional, but I think what teams want is a competitor and that’s what I am and that’s where it all came from.”

THE BOTTOM LINE

There aren’t a lot of guarantees when it comes to drafting, but betting on Elliott being a good NFL player seems like one of the safest predictions to make. However, with the devaluation of the position and the opportunity to find quality backs later in the draft, I don’t think it’d be wise for the Eagles to spend the eighth pick on Elliott.

Obviously, it depends on who’s available, but a guy like Vernon Hargreaves seems like a better pick to me. I think we’ll continue to see more of a trend of high quality running backs selected after the first round, like the 2013 draft, which has already produced four Pro Bowlers (two in the second, one in the sixth and one undrafted). Even the 2014 draft has produced a fourth-round Pro Bowl running back, despite just two seasons elapsing since then.

WHAT YOU MISSED

Weekend Reading: A trade the Eagles should make, ranking the QB prospects and more.

“This isn’t exactly the way Steve Spagnuolo wanted things to go.” NFC East Roundup.

Mock Draft Roundup: Carl Nassib, Pharoh Cooper and other mid-round options.

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING

There’s reason for optimism about the Eagles’ secondary, but one flaw remains, says Tommy Lawlor.

That’s a solid overall group, with a nice mixture of experience and youth. The big problem is that the group lacks a top talent.

The Eagles could change that if they added Jalen Ramsey, but there only chance to get him would involve trading up to the very top of the draft and I don’t think that will happen. Vernon Hargreaves is a very good prospect, but I’m not sure if he’s worth pick 8.

As much as I would love the Eagles to add a top talent at corner, you don’t want to talk yourself into a move. You better 100 percent believe the player is that good. If not, you’re better off adding someone who is that good at another position. The Eagles have bodies. They need an upper tier talent. There are some mysteries on the roster, but none of them feels likely to emerge as something special.

The Doug Pederson era truly begins today, writes the Inquirer’s Zach Berman.

When Pederson spoke to the players on the roster during the last two months, the encounters were informal, and they were not allowed to discuss Pederson’s scheme or how a player would be used. On Monday, Pederson will have his first chance to stand in front of the 69 players under contract and make his first formal impression as head coach.

“Those are things I’ve really thought about this past month,” Pederson said. “For me, the biggest message is just to capture the guys. Just to show them a little bit of who I am, in a small window. We have work to do that day. I’m just looking forward to getting in there and getting to meet all the guys for the first time, face-to-face, get this thing going.”

The offseason program lasts two months. The Eagles were permitted two extra weeks because Pederson is a new coach. Teams with returning head coaches will not begin until April 18.

COMING UP

The Eagles’ offseason workout program begins.