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Ezekiel Elliott is going to be really productive for the Dallas Cowboys. The best running back in the draft class will run behind the NFL's best offensive line and put up some nice numbers.
That said, taking Elliott fourth overall was an impulsive pick by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who has been known to make some impulsive picks from time to time.
One of the benefits of building one of the best offensive lines in NFL history is that virtually any back can have success running behind it. It's a stretch to say any back can have success in the Cowboys offense, but it's not a huge stretch.
You don't need to invest in running back with that line. Darren McFadden, who was considered close to finished before last year, rushed for 1,089 yards at 4.6 yards per carry last season. The year before that, DeMarco Murray won NFL offensive player of the year behind that line. Murray went to the Philadelphia Eagles and saw his average fall from 4.7 to 3.6 yards per carry. Presumably a second-round, third-round or fourth-round pick could have been successful in the Cowboys’ offense. Or McFadden and new addition Alfred Morris would have been. And the Cowboys could have had defensive back Jalen Ramsey, maybe the best player in the draft, on top of that.
Here would be the argument for taking Elliott that high: Elliott is a big-time prospect, he can play every down and he’s going to play well as a rookie. And the Cowboys’ successful formula two years ago was to rely heavily on a star running back, keeping their defense off the field and allowing Tony Romo to take on a complementary role. Romo had a career-best 113.2 rating two seasons ago with just 29 attempts per game. The Cowboys were probably going to advance to the NFC championship game that season had Dez Bryant’s catch at Green Bay been upheld on a controversial replay review. Maybe Elliott carrying the load helps keep Romo healthy this season, as well.
But it’s not a debate about whether Elliott will be good. It would be a shock if he isn’t very good. It’s whether Elliott and whoever the Cowboys get in the second round would have been a better combination than, say, Ramsey and Alabama running back Derrick Henry in the second round. There’s a reason running backs are rarely drafted early anymore. A back going fourth overall seems like something that happened in another era, before games were televised. The return on investment for late-round running backs might be better than any other position. That should be especially true for a team with an elite offensive line. Yet the Cowboys passed on Ramsey to take Elliott.
Simply put, you don't pass on a special defensive back like Ramsey to draft a running back. Not in this era of devalued running backs. Especially not with the offensive line the Cowboys have.
Elliott better be incredible for the Cowboys to feel good about that pick. Ramsey had to be tough to pass up. There’s a good reason: It’s almost impossible to find a defensive back that good past the first round. The same can’t be said about running backs.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from the first round of the NFL draft:
Jacksonville Jaguars: The buzz had already started on the 2016 Jaguars long before the draft. They’re a young team, have a good third-year quarterback and showed signs of improvement last year. Then they spent a ton of money in free agency.
And the buzz won’t slow down now, not after the Jaguars made the best pick of the draft.
Ramsey was considered by many (including our Eric Edholm) to be the best player in the draft. It was no surprise when quarterbacks went 1-2. It was a surprise Joey Bosa went third overall. Then the Cowboys took Elliott, and somehow the Jaguars nabbed the best player of the draft with the fifth overall pick.
Nobody is a can’t-miss prospect, but Ramsey is close. He has elite cornerback skills but can also move around and cover the slot or play safety. He’ll give Jaguars coach Gus Bradley a lot of flexibility. When you consider that pass rusher Dante Fowler, last year’s third overall pick, will return from a knee injury, it’s like the Jaguars are adding two top-five picks to go with free agents like defensive lineman Malik Jackson. Don’t sleep on the Jaguars this season. They did well on Thursday night.
Cleveland Browns: There were questions about the Browns’ front office during free agency, and jokes when reports said they didn’t seem prepared. It was a bad look for a new-look, progressive front office that included Paul DePodesta, a former baseball executive best known for his appearance in the book “Moneyball.”
But the Browns seem to know how to work the draft pretty well.
Through two trades Cleveland turned the No. 2 pick, a conditional fifth-round pick and a sixth-round pick into — take a deep breath — the 15th pick Thursday, two third-round picks this year, a fourth-round pick this year, a first- and second-round pick next year and a second-round pick in 2018. That’s amazing. The Browns loaded up in a trade with the Eagles, then traded back one more time with the Titans, sliding down from No. 8 to No. 15 to gather more picks. And at No. 15 the Browns filled a need by taking Corey Coleman, the first receiver off the board.
The Browns’ roster is in bad shape, and ESPN analyst Mel Kiper twisted the knife by referring to the Browns as a “glorified expansion team.” Yikes. They needed to stockpile draft picks just to get an influx of young talent. Consider that done.
John Elway: We can’t just assume Elway planned this all along. All it would have taken is one team drafting before No. 26 to select Memphis quarterback Paxton Lynch, or some team being more aggressive in trading up, and it wouldn't have worked out so well for Elway and the Denver Broncos. The Cowboys reportedly were trying to trade for Lynch, but failed. So Elway got a bit lucky.
But the Broncos general manager comes out of a crazy offseason looking like he had that quarterback mess under control the whole time.
Elway got Lynch, presumably his starting quarterback at some point this season and for a few more to come. He didn't even have to give up a ton, trading a third-round pick to move up five spots to take Lynch. There are no more concerns about having to get a flawed veteran in a trade or free agency. Just like landing Peyton Manning in free agency a few years back, which was the one move that allowed Elway to seamlessly move on from Tim Tebow, things just seem to work out in the end for Elway.
The defending Super Bowl champions come out of the draft with their answer at quarterback, and now people in Denver can stop panicking. Smooth.
San Francisco 49ers: The night started well. Taking defensive end DeForest Buckner was a coup. He could end up being a great pick at No. 7. Not much else went right though.
The 49ers made one of the stranger trades of the night. They traded a second-, fourth- and sixth-round pick to get Stanford guard Joshua Garnett, who wasn’t projected by many to be a first-round pick and could have been around if the 49ers stayed put at 37. It didn’t seem like a prudent gamble for a bad team that needs its picks.
That wasn’t the worst thing that happened. When the Denver Broncos traded up for Lynch, that practically ended the chances of the 49ers trading Colin Kaepernick. That could end up being the best thing for the team in the long run because it could use a good quarterback and maybe Kaepernick rediscovers his form from a couple years ago. But now the 49ers have to start mending fences with Kaepernick, who is unhappy and now very unlikely to be traded anywhere.
Joey Bosa and the San Diego Chargers: This could work out really well. Bosa has been highly thought of for a while, and any No. 3 overall pick should succeed.
But there’s a lot of pressure on Bosa now after the Chargers surprised everyone and took him at No. 3.
There are some questions if Bosa will be an elite pass rusher, which you want with a player drafted third overall. Although he was mostly a 4-3 defensive end at Ohio State, he’ll likely be an outside linebacker in the Chargers’ 3-4 scheme. He’ll always be compared to some of the other picks the Chargers could have made, most notably Ramsey.
It could be fine. Bosa is talented and was never going to slide out of the top 10. So even if it was a surprise he went third, it’s not too crazy. But the pressure ramped up for Bosa with that pick.
Alabama: Bama doesn’t lose often on the field, but Thursday wasn’t a great day for the Crimson Tide.
Search through enough mock drafts and you’ll find running back Derrick Henry, defensive tackles Jarran Reed and A’Shawn Robinson, and linebacker Reggie Ragland listed as projected first-round picks in at least one of them. None of them were selected on Thursday. The only Alabama player to go in the first round was center Ryan Kelly, who went 18th to the Indianapolis Colts.
Four of the top 14 available players after Thursday’s first round in our rankings compiled by Edholm are Alabama players. Is that a coincidence, or attributable to the notion that Nick Saban and his program wear out their players a bit? Ragland can be explained by a heart condition that was reported before the draft. Henry wasn’t a first-round lock by any means because running backs have been devalued. Reed and Robinson were borderline first-round picks. But as a whole, it’s a disappointing first round for a program that doesn’t experience much disappointment.
Podcast: Breaking down the wildest NFL Draft day in history:
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